Marine Policy: the ongoing battle to protect that which gives us life
Without water, life on this planet would not be possible. Seemingly a mundane truth, yet one that human beings tend to forget all too often. Around 55% of the human body is made up of water in adult females (closer to 60% in adult males) and over 70% of the planet is covered in water - with a vast majority of it (roughly 96.5%) found in the world ocean. Scientists estimate that over half of the oxygen production on earth comes from oceanic processes, such as plankton that can photosynthesize. Additionally, the ocean absorbs 25% of all carbon dioxide emissions and captures over 90% of the excess heat generated by these emissions via biogeochemical and thermodynamic cycles, which transfer matter and energy across the planet. Marine ecosystem services such as oxygen production and providing a large carbon and heat sink, as well as food production, coastal protection, recreation, tourism, etc., not only contribute to our well-being, but they have also provided jobs for over 60 million people and have been estimated to be worth $29.5 trillion per year - a figure that has surpassed the USA’s gross national product for over a decade. So we can see that it is everywhere, it is important, and its resources can support prosperity and economic security - but do you think money is the only reason why a third of the population lives within 150 miles of a coastline? Absolutely not. When thinking about it in the sense that coastal communities are at higher risk of natural disaster exposure, one might say that people must be crazy to knowingly gravitate toward such a mysterious and intimidating natural feature. Sure, economics help sway the vote a bit, but what makes people do crazier things than money? Love.
Many cultures throughout history have cultivated deep respect and appreciation for the ocean, stitching it intricately into their sense of being, and letting it inspire them as a muse for any medium. Most fishermen find a state of bliss being on the high seas, some with the songs of their ancestors in their hearts as they chase the horizon to provide food and security for their families. Some reminisce about the experience of putting on their first snorkel and heading out into the unknown as the moment their eyes were opened to a whole new perspective on life. It was this level of affection that brought attention to how humans have historically used ocean resources and the need to conserve them. For centuries, people held the idea of “mare liberum”, or freedom of the seas, where navigable bodies of water (such as a sea) were free for all nations to use as they please. And this view worked out just fine…until the industrial revolution. As ships grew larger, once ample fish and whale populations began dropping at alarming rates. As engines started running on combustion and factories emerged suddenly like the bloom of spring flowers, our reliance on fossil fuels skyrocketed and created new avenues for toxic pollution to enter our waterways. As we realized that ocean resources are limited and that our actions do, in fact, impact this valuable prospect and its inhabitants, the growing need to conserve local resources, regulate activities in the marine environment, and maintain a healthy ocean scape became impossible to ignore. This idea of conservation began as a concept for wildlife biologists, and fisheries scientists that aimed at maximizing populations of biomass or species preferred by hunters, loggers, or fishermen; and by the late 1800s, the conservation movement erupted in the United States, targeting fisheries and wildlife management, water, soil, and sustainable forestry.
Most of these early efforts, however, were plagued with conflict and a lack of concrete management structures. As a larger portion of the public grew more concerned with the health of their environment, the focus began broadening to include all landscapes and human activities. Environmentalists, cultural groups, laborers, academics, scientists, parents concerned over their homes being built over toxic waste dumps, citizens who developed a loving relationship with the natural world, and many more all banded together to wage a war on state officials who ignored public cries to protect the environment throughout the 1900s. Their efforts eventually led to the creation of a multitude of laws, agencies, and management regimes based around protecting land, water, and life - including some you may have heard of before, such as the Sierra Club, the Clean Water Act, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The world of politics, however, is complex and many times, these legal tools are lengthy and full of jargon. Honestly, who would want to read an information-dense article that can be several hundred pages long? Furthermore, as helpful as these environmental victories have been thus far, ocean-related issues threatening the planet each day are still plentiful, including biodiversity and habitat destruction, collapsing ecosystems, overharvesting, pollution, acidification, rising sea level, and circulation pattern alteration. The biggest issue, however, is that the most intelligent and powerful species on the planet right now has been irresponsible and has failed to fully account for the repercussions of their actions when it comes to ocean health. The only way I see that changing is through public communication coupled with legal action. My job is to help you navigate the world of marine politics, or as I like to call them, molitics, and filter out all of the trivial parts of these legal actions to get right down to the core of what ocean management looks like today. To understand the significance of these developments and their relevance in our daily lives though, we first have to understand how politics work on both international and national levels. With a better grasp of how these political systems work, we have a chance to understand the values and traditions that shape our different views of the world ocean and the reasons why marine resource management decisions are made. Equipped with this knowledge, every citizen can find their voice to speak up and know when and how to fight for the big blue and our own wellbeing.
Cover Photo Credit: Francois Baelen
Bauer, Sarah E. (2016). Picking Up the Slackline: Can the United States and Japan Successfully Regulate Commercial Fishing of Bluefin Tuna Following Failed Intergovernmental Attempts? Indiana Law Journal: Vol. 91: Iss. 5, Article 8.
Elliott, L. (2023, April 21). Environmentalism - Pollution, Conservation, and Environmentalism. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/environmentalism/History-of-the-environmental-movement
McCormick, J. (2012). Comparative Politics in Transition. Cengage Learning.
NOAA. (2023, February 1). How much oxygen comes from the ocean? NOAA's National Ocean Service. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/ocean-oxygen.html
United Nations. (n.d.). The ocean – the world's greatest ally against climate change | United Nations. the United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/science/climate-issues/ocean
Water Science School. (2019, May 22). The Water in You: Water and the Human Body | U.S. Geological Survey. USGS https://www.usgs.gov/special-topics/water-science-school/science/water-you-water-and-human-body
Water Science School. (2019, November 13). How Much Water is There on Earth? USGS. https://www.usgs.gov/special-topics/water-science-school/science/how-much-water-there-earth?qt-science_center_objects=0#overview