The seas and coasts have long been strong drivers of economies worldwide, and coastal communities and ports have traditionally been hubs for ideas and innovation due to their outward-looking geography. Yet the potential for industrial activity and innovation in the marine environment has grown exponentially in recent decades due to three main factors.
Firstly, rapid technological progress has opened up new possibilities for the exploration and exploitation of marine areas. Secondly, land and freshwater resources are finite, and this fact has become ever more apparent as population and demand for resources grow. Thirdly, the need to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions has increased interest in sustainable innovation in the marine environment.
This process of ocean industrialisation is adding a lengthening list of new uses to traditional shipping and fishing activities, with a concomitant increase in the potential for negative environmental impacts. While the industrial revolution on land precipitated the climate change era, the industrial revolution in the oceans has the potential to be part of the solution if managed appropriately.
Though some marine activities, such as the established oil and gas extraction industries, present an inherent challenge to sustainability, a number of new offshore industries have great potential to contribute to the climate mitigation effort and to sustainable development. For example, well-managed aquaculture could provide a much needed source of food to coastal communities while preserving natural ecosystems; carbon capture and storage could remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it offshore; sustainable tourism can lead to improved resource management; and wave and tidal energy technologies can provide clean renewable energy.
Nonetheless, the number and intensity of these activities have the collective potential to generate significant cumulative impacts and place pressure on fragile ecosystems. The need to balance new economic and social opportunities with conservation is encapsulated by the EU’s ‘Blue Growth’ agenda, which focuses on the opportunity to harness the potential of Europe’s oceans for jobs and growth whilst also safeguarding biodiversity and protecting the marine environment.
This new wave of industrial activity in the oceans and the need to balance this with environmental protection necessitates evolution of legal and regulatory structures. Marine governance structures have traditionally focused on single-sector management and environmental protection, whereas now a more holistic approach is called for that can accommodate a range of ocean uses and users.
Within their own waters, states have traditionally managed marine activities on a single-sector basis. This was somewhat functional where uses of the oceans were limited and conflicts were few, and where the oceans were not imperilled by industrialisation. However, this paradigm has severe limitations when marine activities increase, conflicts between users become more common, and the environment is put under pressure.
The rise of systems thinking and the negotiation of the UN Convention on Law of the Sea saw the decline of single-sector management and its replacement by integrated management concepts like Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM). These mechanisms improved upon single-sector management, but have also been the subject of criticism, particularly for failing to balance ecological with social considerations. A large review of MPAs published in 2011 noted the challenges involved in successfully implementing MPAs and the perils of focussing solely on conservation, concluding that they can only address some causes of biodiversity loss. Similarly, ICZM has been criticised as being ineffective, with few successful implementations in place.
As ocean industrialisation has advanced, so too has the need for fresh thinking, both on options for sustainably developing marine resources and on governance structures to regulate and facilitate such developments. In this rapidly evolving context, both MPAs and ICZM have been criticised as being deficient, having a strong environmental focus without the ability to adapt to, and incorporate, new marine industrial developments.
As ocean uses and the conflicts between them intensify, the oceans are likely to become a site for reimagining and recreating social institutions and relations. Increased industrialisation of the oceans is leading to new discourses, and Governments are now in the process of restructuring the rights and rules of the oceans, taking up new regulatory models and innovations in their modernisation of marine governance.
This new period in the evolution of marine governance has seen a move away from focus on single industries, single objectives and particular mechanisms, to a broader objective of applying a coherent governance framework to the entire marine environment in order to realise economic benefits while maintaining social and environmental values. In this new paradigm, policy-makers and managers will be required to responsibly evaluate the trade-offs between these considerations, and between the various uses and users of the marine environment.
This shift in thinking about Marine Governance was well articulated by Gail Oshenko, who issues a compelling call to advance the evolution of approaches to the governance of marine spaces:
We are entering a new era of rapidly expanding ocean use… New technologies are opening new discourses on ocean ethics and governance… Changes in our perceptions, values, and technology regarding the sea are driving the need for new rules and regulations as well as changes in systems of rights to occupy sea space and use ocean resources…
We must engage with these issues, and in particular must reconsider the nature of rights and ownership in the oceans, how we manage marine resources and ocean space, and how we ensure the environmental sustainability of new industrial activities. These are big questions with no simple answers, but engaging with them will be essential to ensuring that marine governance keeps pace with ocean industrialisation.