by Guy Standing

For most of human history, the oceans have been seen as a global commons, the benefits and resources of which belong to us all in equal measure. But our seas – and the marine environment as a whole – are being ravaged by exploitation for corporate profit. The result is a social, economic and ecological crisis that threatens the very life support system of the Earth.

The oceans cover 70% of the planet’s surface, provide half the oxygen we breathe and help combat climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide. Some 40% of the world’s population live in coastal communities and depend on ocean, coastal and marine resources for their livelihoods and well-being.

Many of the critical issues affecting the ‘blue commons’ require international action. These include the depletion of fish populations by subsidized industrialized fisheries; destruction of the seabed and vital coral reefs by oil multinationals; a threatened biodiversity wipe-out from deep-sea mining for minerals; and the reckless spread of commercial aquaculture.

The 2022 UN Ocean Conference, held last month in Lisbon, came up with plenty of fine words and promises, but nothing that would put these trends into reverse. Just before the conference, after more than two decades of negotiations, the World Trade Organization finalised a feeble agreement on fishing subsidies, in which the initial commitment to abolish “harmful subsidies” was deleted from the final text.

My new book, The Blue Commons, argues that the only way to stop – and reverse – the destruction and depletion of marine resources and ecosystems is to revive the ethos of the sea as a commons, managed for the benefit of all by those whose lives and livelihoods depend on it.

Only commoners have a tangible and emotional vested interest in preserving the seascape and using the seas’ resources sustainably. And they should be compensated for loss of the ‘blue commons’, with ‘common dividends’ financed by levies on exploitation for private gain.

Privatizing the sea

Since 1945, when the US unilaterally asserted ownership of the continental shelf and parts of the high seas around its shores, much of the blue commons has been converted into private property. In 1982, UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) endorsed the biggest enclosure in history, granting countries exclusive economic zones (EEZs) that extended 200 nautical miles from their coastlines. This set in train procedures and institutional mechanisms that have expanded privatization and financialization to all parts of the marine economy. It also cemented neocolonialism, granting ex-imperial countries such as the US, France and the UK millions of square miles around lands far from their shores – their so-called ‘overseas territories’.

It is hard to exaggerate the scale of the plunder of the blue commons in the period of neoliberal economic dominance since the 1980s. The seas have become the frontier of global rentier capitalism. The spreading claws of financial capital are evident almost everywhere, with private equity growing in prominence.

The financial industry, fronted by the World Bank, has steered the much-touted ‘blue growth’ strategy, promising an unlikely combination of economic growth, poverty alleviation and environmental improvement. The pickings for profit look tempting. Were the seas a country, the income generated from all marine activities would make it the world’s seventh-biggest economy, which (at least pre-Covid) was expected to see rapid growth fuelled by tourism, ports and shipping.

Specifically British problems

Some issues affecting the marine environment are particularly pertinent in Britain. Taken together, they justify the creation of a ‘national commission on the blue economy’, to reset economic and social policy regarding our waters.

The UK government operates a regressive, weakly administered fishing quota system that gives private property rights to commercial fishing companies. Most of the UK fishing quota goes to a handful of big corporations. Well over a quarter has been given to just five families, all on The Sunday Times Rich List. Just one giant vessel – registered in the UK but Dutch-owned – has 23% of the English quota.

The system by which fishing quota is divided up is opaque and susceptible to corruption. But the government’s 2020 Fisheries Act, which regulates fisheries post-Brexit, made no changes. It has led to chronic overfishing – often illegal – compounded by the fact that breaches are treated as mild civil offences, not criminal ones. To take just one example: in 2015, the Dutch-owned super-trawler mentioned above was caught with 632,000 kilos of illegally caught mackerel. It was fined just £102,000 and then allowed to sell the fish for £437,000 and retain its quota share.

To compound this impunity, the Royal Navy and Scotland’s Marine Sea Fisheries Inspectorate have only 12 ‘marine protection vessels’ to monitor fishing practices in a sea area three times the size of the UK’s land area. Meanwhile, the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), England’s regulatory body, had its budget slashed as part of austerity, leading to a sharp drop in inspections and investigations of fishery violations and a similar drop in warnings and prosecutions.

Marine protection in name only

The UK government has made much of its claim to be extending its protection of sea and marine species through marine protected areas (MPAs), also called marine conservation zones. These cover nearly a quarter of the UK’s territorial waters. But most MPAs are poorly protected, with highly destructive fishing methods such as bottom-trawling and dredging allowed in many of them.

Recently, the MMO brought a case against Greenpeace for dropping boulders into supposedly protected areas to disrupt trawling. The judge had the sense to toss out the case as “absurd,” urging the MMO to do its designated job, and not harass those induced to act in its stead. Meanwhile, BP was recently given the go-ahead by another government regulator to dump thousands of tonnes of steel pipes and cables from a decommissioned oil rig into an MPA in the North Sea.

Under common law in the UK, the monarchy and the government are supposed to be trustees or stewards, responsible for preserving the commons as such for future generations. Instead, they have handed over the commons for multinationals to exploit for profit, with minimal environmental protections or compensation for the commoners – the British public.

For instance, in another sell-out of the blue commons, the Crown Estate (the Queen’s property company) has been allowed to auction off large expanses of the seabed around Britain to multinational corporations for offshore wind farms. The latest round in 2021 will raise up to £9bn over ten years for the royal family and the Treasury.

Deep-sea mining – and worse to come

Coming up are even bigger concerns: prospective deep-sea mining (aka ‘seabed harvesting’) for minerals, and the extension of intellectual property rights to ‘marine genetic resources’ (MGRs), which are of particular interest to medicine.

UK Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of the US arms company Lockheed Martin, in partnership with the UK government, holds licences to search the Pacific for deep-sea mining sites. High demand for minerals such as cobalt and lithium important to the electronics and renewable energy industries means deep-sea mining promises to be highly profitable – but threatens to cause potentially catastrophic damage to marine ecosystems.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), the regulator for deep-sea mining in more than half the world’s ocean area, has a mandate to promote “the orderly, safe and rational management” of seabed resources. It is charged with mitigating the damage from seabed mining, but not with stopping or even limiting it, despite calls from leading scientists for a moratorium. And the ISA’s pitiful budget is nowhere near large enough to monitor what giant corporations are up to. If the ISA fails to agree a mining code, after years of delay, unregulated commercial seabed mining could start next year.

As for intellectual property rights, the UK has missed the proverbial boat. Companies in just three countries, Germany, the US and Japan, hold more than three-quarters of the thousands of patents already taken out on marine genetic resources. Astoundingly, one multinational alone, the German chemical giant BASF, owns nearly half the patents.

These patents will guarantee monopoly income flows from the blue economy for many years, and give rich corporations in rich countries private control over a key research and development agenda that affects the whole world.

Guy Standing was a program director in the UN’s International Labor Organization. His books include The Precariat (2011) and Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth (2019)

First published in Open Democracy