Who Owns the Oceans


Shaggy Disc: This jellyfish was encountered at a depth of 1,978 m (photo by Ocean Networks Canada).

As detailed in Part I of this two-part series, the seafloor is teeming with minerals so expensive to recover that mining them has only been a theoretical possibility up to now. As the demand for minerals increase though, in part due to growing reliance on alternative energy, the commercial interest in seabed mining has also increased. Because of environmental concerns, however, the state of Washington, following after Oregon, has prohibited seabed mining in Washington’s state-owned aquatic lands.  Outside of state waters, however, jurisdiction over open ocean resources is a complicated and fascinating story.

Perhaps some of our erudite readers caught Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker piece on seabed mining. In it, she does an excellent job of describing a few of the strange and wonderful deep ocean creatures that are being discovered, drawing a bright line between seabed mining and biological conservation. Like most environmental journalism, the issue is presented as a binary choice: you are either for or against. Those who make environmental policy, however, do not have the luxury of opinion purity. Our need for minerals is real, and there is no easy solution.

Our new state law protects marine waters extending to 3 nautical miles (nmi, close to a regular mile). Prior to the 1960s, nautical law was dominated by the principle of “freedom-of-the-seas” that stressed free passage of ships for all purposes other than war. As countries began to extend the limits of marine-related military and commercial activities, inevitable conflicts arose and thus was born the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) treaty that became effective in 1982.

As part of UNCLOS, a series of international jurisdictional boundaries were defined and have been adopted by the U.S. From state waters out to 12 nmi is a zone called the Territorial Sea over which the coastal country has total sovereignty.  Outside of this is designated the 200 nmi Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In 1983, President Reagan signed a proclamation that established our coastal EEZ in which the U.S. has exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resources found within the water, and on or below the sea floor, with exclusive rights to engage in offshore energy generation from waves, currents, and wind.

Map generated from WA state Coastal Atlas Map by the author.

Along the Washington coast, a large federal area has been set aside in the EEZ for conservation called the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. In the Sanctuary, developing or producing oil, gas or minerals is prohibited.  Next time you are waiting for the Black Ball ferry in Port Angeles, check out the Sanctuary Visitor Center when it re-opens. 

The ocean beyond the EEZ is referred to as the high seas by UNCLOS, and the international seabed is termed “the Area.” The U.N. considers the Area part of “the common heritage of all mankind” and is beyond any national jurisdiction. Countries can conduct activities in the Area so long as they are for peaceful purposes, such as transit, marine science, and undersea exploration.

The common heritage of mankind is an ethical concept that the international oceans belong to all humanity, thus ocean resources are available for everyone’s use and benefit including developing countries. It is this philosophy that underlies the mission of the U.N. agency in charge of managing and regulating seabed mining in international waters. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), located in Kingston, Jamaica, has been given this challenging task by UNCLOS. 

Ms. Kolbert’s article starts with a description of the ISA as a “building that looks a bit like a prison and a bit like a Holiday Inn,” which is true. But this description misses the deeply-felt importance of the mission of those who work there. Their dual mission is to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment, while at the same time managing exploration in such a way that, if and when mining occurs, the proceeds from this activity are shared with all of the world’s inhabitants. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the U.S. has never ratified the UNCLOS treaty that has since been ratified by 168 countries. Along with 14 other countries including Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea and Libya, the U.S. has declined to sign the treaty through both Democratic and Republican administrations. By contrast, the U.S. immediately signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, then un-signed, re-joining in 2021.  Recently, negotiations have started on an international legally-binding instrument under UNCLOS on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. 

We earthings have already missed the first U.N. goal of protecting at least 10% of the high seas by 2020. By one estimate, the global coverage of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) stands at a meager 7.7%.  The good news is that about 26% of U.S. waters is under the auspices of an MPA, the vast majority in the remote Pacific. Canada created the first MPA in 2003 off of the western coast of Vancouver Island at the Endeavour Hydrothermal Vent field and is considering expanding this site. This MPA was created to conserve the biological diversity and ecosystem of the hydrothermal vent communities. 

While we are doing well within the EEZ where 18% of the marine environment is protected, we are doing less well in the Area. A vast portion of the ocean lies beyond EEZs: 64% by area and 95% by volume. Currently only an estimated 1.2% of the high seas is protected.

Having failed to reach the first goal, a new, more ambitious goal has been devised by the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity of protecting at least 30% of the ocean by 2030.  Canada has recently signed on to this effort.

If our goal is to depend more on alternative energy, then promoting efforts for sustainable mining both on land and in the ocean is in our interest. One method is to encourage and support policy efforts to target marine protection in those areas of unique ecology or diversity. The problem: where are these areas? The Marine Conservation Institute has generated an excellent summary of existing and potential new areas in their Marine Protection Atlas

Planetary Hero and Ocean Elder Dr. Sylvia Earle notes that we invest more in exploration and study of outer space than we do about our own oceans. Marine scientific research is one of the allowed uses in the Area.

Here in the northwest we are fortunate to have a plethora of marine science research and infrastructure. The University of Victoria’s Ocean Networks Canada has been monitoring the oceans since 2006 using cabled observatories, remote control systems and interactive sensors. Their goal is to support evidence-based decision-making on ocean management, disaster mitigation (re: earthquake alerts!), and environmental protection. 

A sample of tubeworms (Ridgeia piscesae) were collected by the ROV from the Grotto vent at Main Endeavour Field and placed in a biobox where deep sea spider crabs (Macroregonia macrochira) quickly descended for an easy meal. Photo From Oceans Network Canada.

Similarly, the University of Washington operates the Regional Cabled Array.

Like so many other complicated science-based issues, bumper stickers and memes are insufficiently responsive to address them. Advocating for marine science research both nationally and internationally is one way to ensure that the we find and identify the most critical ocean regions to preserve. Encouraging our politicians to sign UNCLOS is another advocacy effort that would indicate our country’s  willingness to join the world community in conservation efforts.

Peggy Myre
Peggy Myre
Peggy Myre is founder and president of Exa Data & Mapping, a local company providing marine environmental data management and visualization services to national and international clients.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments Policy

Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post alley or its editors.