The Ocean Commons

How do we govern and manage the ocean outside national jurisdiction to use it responsibly, sustain its value, and assure its potential forever for the benefit of all mankind?

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Most of us are familiar from our colonial history lessons with the idea the commons, that central portion of land around which a settlement was built that was shared by all for pasturage of animals, agriculture, and general well-being. We may also be aware of the influential essay, “Tragedy of the Commons,” by ecologist Garrett Hardin, first published in the journal Science in 1968, which describes a dilemma arising from a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen.

Turning to the ocean, we realize that it is the greatest commons of them all. International law delimits national interest in ocean resources to an “exclusive economic zone” up to 200 miles offshore. The balance – that is, 64% of the ocean surface and 90% of its volume – lies outside such governance and includes the high seas, the ocean floor and subsoil, an enormous compendium of natural resources to include all marine species, minerals, chemicals, and genetic resources of incalculable value to human kind.

It is a vast challenge to protect, manage, and sustain such a resource, especially when agreement involves multiple levels of governance and a broad spectrum of public and private enterprise. The tragedy of the ocean commons is evinced by the intrusion of polluting elements from the nations and their self-interests that invade and destroy the shared value without constraint, without question.

It may be the most important geopolitical question we now face. How do we govern, how do we manage, the ocean outside national jurisdiction to use it responsibly, to sustain its value near and long-term, and to assure its potential forever for the benefit of all mankind?

The situation has been the focus of innumerable conferences, declarations, multi-lateral agreements, and treaties. Today, at Rio + 20, a major international conference on sustainability involving hundreds of national leaders and thousands of policy-makers and activists, that question is being asked on a global scale. At the first such conference twenty years ago, the ocean was hardly mentioned. The present situation is improved in that ocean issues are included, hopefully for the better, but the outcome of the entire exercise remains to be seen. Will the conference make a difference? Let’s hope so, but we have been disappointed before.

The truth is that we have many tools now in place that have, and can continue, to address the issue aggressively: local management plans, marine protected areas, spatial planning, pilot zoning projects, environmental assessments, management training, and transfer of an ever-expanding reservoir of ocean information and technology. We also have many organizations: the United Nations General Assembly, the UN Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN International Maritime Organization, the International Seabed Authority, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Conference on Sustainable Development, various fisheries agreements, the Antarctic treaties, the UN Law of the Sea, and many more – a skein of overlapping policy-making and regulatory structures that account for what progress has been made over the last few decades.

Some would argue that that progress has been very little. Serious problems do remain: data gaps, irregular process, limited coordination, inequitable geographic coverage, lack of time and financial resources, regulatory failures, legal limitations, outdated laws, and inadequate compliance and enforcement. But let’s not rush to the cynical conclusion. The irony is that despite these inhibitions, we do have the knowledge, the principles, and organizations in place to be successful. If we could address these existing issues, invigorate these existing organizations, we could, by just applying the tools already in hand, make a powerful difference in our ability to address the deteriorating condition of the ocean commons.

It seems complicated, and I fear the powers that be will opt for another noble declaration of principles or a new, larger, all encompassing bureaucracy.  What we need is will power and action, not ideals and intentions.  In the end, it must come down to agreement on what is our ultimate self-interest. Do we care enough? Do we understand the ocean’s capacity to provide the nurturing imperatives for our future lives? Do we want to live in a world where everyone, not just a few, has access to the common wealth of the ocean for generations to come? Can it be `that simple?