Christian Bueger argues that ocean policy-makers must avoid fragmentation and pay more attention to blue justice and maritime security
For all its crises in other areas, 2023 has bought hope that the international community is on its way to better safeguarding and protecting the oceans. Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and growing geopolitical tensions, June 2023 saw the adoption of a new international treaty for the high seas and ocean floor. Negotiations for a treaty against plastic pollution are well underway and the climate change regime for shipping is picking up pace. Global initiatives such as the High Seas Alliance have received high levels of attention, and have driven further diplomatic successes. At the same time global informal forums, such as the Our Ocean Conference or the UN Ocean Conference, have focused international attention on other ocean challenges. This new momentum in support of finding multilateral solutions for protecting the oceans is staggering, and reflects a trend that we argue represents a wholescale ‘ocean revolution’.
Yet among all this fast-moving positive change, ocean governance is faced with a deeper structural problem that casts doubt on how far this new multilateral momentum can actually lead to more effective and equitable ocean protection. Namely, a growing fragmentation of policy, analysis and solutions across four separate approaches to ocean governance, which we describe as ‘blue paradigms’, is driving policy-makers in different and often conflicting directions. Without a concerted focus on coordination between these approaches their contradictions may squander the immense potential of current reform efforts.
Four ways to govern the oceans
Much of the current debate on ocean governance and its associated instruments for marine protection are cast in terms of the ‘blue economy’ or ‘ocean health’. Blue economy thinking prioritizes managing ocean users with a view towards encouraging innovative business models that exploit ocean resources more sustainably and create new jobs and economic growth. Ocean health also recognizes the need for better planning ocean use but argues that conservation and restoration must have priority. Much of the current wave of ocean multilateralism is concerned with reconciling the two paradigms through solutions such as marine protected areas and spatial planning.
Yet, vital concerns are missing in this debate — namely, maritime security and ‘blue justice’. New ocean rules and regulations must be enforced in one way or another. Without enforcement by coastguards or navies, maritime protected areas become ‘paper parks’, with little impact on ocean health. Indeed, close attention must also be paid to the threats the oceans face highlighted by maritime security thinkers: blue crimes — such as illegal fishing, pollution, piracy or threats to critical maritime infrastructure — can undermine conservation efforts considerably. A single oil spill caused by negligence can throw back conservation efforts for decades, while persistent insecurity and crimes hinder new investments.
While some of these insecurities are linked to criminal intent, others are driven by injustices. If blue economic growth does not benefit coastal populations and fishing communities, many of which are already marginalized, this will present new incentives to engage in criminal activities. Protection efforts must hence pay close attention to the justice concerns of maritime communities. Those dependent on the oceans can be important partners in ocean conservation and restoration, but the opposite can also be true if their interests and concerns are ignored by policy-makers.
Averting a crisis in marine governance
As is rightfully emphasized in ocean governance rhetoric, governing the seas requires integrated policies. This not only includes maritime industries. Fixing the oceans’ problems means paying close attention to law enforcement and security as well the injustices that might be the unintentional consequences of policy reform and integration.
New ocean solutions must therefore work towards reinforcing the synergies between the four blue paradigms. On a national level this means ensuring that ocean policies and strategies integrate maritime security implications, for instance in the design of marine protected areas. International capacity building efforts for conservation and law enforcement should not be seen as separate projects, but carried out in concert. In improving surveillance at sea, for example, policy-makers are often faced with separate monitoring structures for maritime security — called Maritime Domain Awareness — and for environmental and scientific purposes — termed Monitoring, Control and Surveillance plans. Moreover, the role of coastal communities is often not well considered in these surveillance initiatives. Ultimately, bringing together these disparate surveillance systems while addressing the concerns of the local communities they affect is vital if we want to ensure durable and effective monitoring of marine protected areas.
In this as in other policy areas, challenging the mindsets of ocean professionals that often don’t look beyond their respective niches, and overcoming tensions, for instance between security and conservation professionals, is vital. Explicit cross-paradigmatic dialogue also needs to become a priority for the informal global ocean forums, such as the upcoming 2024 Our Ocean Conference in Greece, or the 2025 UN Ocean Conference in France.
The new multilateral momentum in favour of expanded ocean governance is good news for the oceans, but practitioners must start identifying ways to overcome fragmentation not only in discourse, but also in practice. Only by paying close attention to the enforcement of rules on a global and regional level, while listening more carefully to the concerns of coastal communities, can policymakers avoid the potential clashes that this new wave of reforms risks exacerbating.
Read more about the challenges facing contemporary ocean governance here.