Politics and Our Ocean Future

How do we protect or improve existing agreements? How do we persuade lawmakers and political leaders of their critical, enduring value and the ongoing need for agreement as the ocean becomes more and more essential to our very survival?

The world ocean is a political sea, subject to the constant winds and tides of political ideology and circumstance. To navigate safely and successfully first requires a full understanding of the currents and conditions that prevail; as that is a fluid situation, to say the least, every passage has its prospects and dangers.

To be optimistic is such situational flux requires competence, resilience, and awareness. One learns to read the maps and charts, to know the subtle shifts that signal change, to be prepared for the sudden front that brings with it serious wind and wave and tests the skill and courage of everyone on board.

Beyond the metaphor, the ocean is the subject of real focus and activity by individuals and organizations whose mission is to bring order and insight to practice — to do the research, write the rules, inform the policies, and control the politics that might otherwise subvert best intention.

Many nations, then, have a national ocean policy — a set of definitions, goals and objectives that provide context for regulation, parity, and conflict mitigation. The United States does not. Many nations also have bi-lateral agreements and multi-national treaties with others to promote equity and equal application of practice across international boundaries in the unique, inter-connected ecology of the ocean commons. The Law of the Sea has been affirmed by over one hundred nations. The United States has not joined their number, arguing that such constraints compromise its “sovereignty” and limits its political and economic interests.

Various organizations exist, within the United Nations, the European Union, and along the coasts of Africa that provide a framework for cooperation and collaboration, even among nations that cannot agree on much of anything else. The UN Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission; the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, UNESCO, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) — all these are in place with general acceptance by most parties in understanding the need for uniform codes for conduct.

But what about the politics of change? How do we protect or improve the agreements that exist? How do we persuade lawmakers and political leaders of the critical, enduring value of these accomplishments and the on-going need for agreement as the ocean becomes more and more essential to our survival?

In the United States Congress there is a bipartisan Senate Ocean Caucus, elected representatives from coastal states and elsewhere who have a particular interest in advancing specific legislation affecting ocean issues. There is also Ocean Champions, an outside group that advocates for such issues and supports the election and re-election of those who best engage in ocean interest. There are also numerous ocean conservation and advocacy groups that promote species and habitat conservation and, more recently, policy initiatives regarding governance, enforcement, and research.

Ocean science is also part of this mix, with focus on observation, mapping, and research. Ocean education represents another aspect to include the universities, institutes, and aquariums, the ocean literacy advocates, the rapidly expanding environmental studies programs at both undergraduate and graduate level, and the measurable interest in marine biology in middle-schools and other educational programs for the next generation.

Image: A. Chetvergov for the United Nations Development Programme
Global Environment Facility (UNDP-GEF)


Despite all this interest and success, there are threats that can undermine this achievement and progress through politics. We might take note that climate and the environment was hardly mentioned in the recent US presidential election.

The force of the ocean is not easily controlled by ideology or inexperience. The compelling indications of climate change, for example, suggest realities that cannot be denied by words or indifference and that will play out inevitably and dangerously if we are not cognizant, prepared, and capable of response.

So, what about the politics of knowledge? To be optimistic for the future, should we not take advantage of what we know, act in anticipation of the potential consequence, create responsible policy, apply available technology and financial resources that are forward-looking and correlative to the threat? As participants in this ocean passage, should we not engage and contribute toward the successful application of what we have learned from our experience? We hold the answer to these questions and to whatever storm looms on the horizon in our hands. Hold fast! Lay to! Sail on!

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Listen to an audio broadcast of "Politics and our Ocean Future" here.