How private companies stole the sea from the commons
For most of human history, the oceans have been considered a global commons, the benefits and resources of which belong to all of us equally. But our seas – and the marine environment as a whole – are being ravaged by exploitation for profit. The result is a social, economic and ecological crisis that threatens the very survival system of the Earth.
The oceans cover 70% of the planet’s surface, provide half of the oxygen we breathe and help fight climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide. About 40% of the world’s population lives in coastal communities and depends 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; the destruction of the seabed and vital coral reefs by multinational oil companies; an annihilation of biodiversity threatened by deep-sea mining for minerals; and the reckless spread of commercial aquaculture.
The 2022 UN Ocean Conference, held last month in Lisbon, made a lot of nice words and promises, but nothing that could reverse these trends. Just before the conference, after more than two decades of negotiations, the World Trade Organization finalized a flimsy deal on fisheries subsidies, in which the original commitment to abolish ‘harmful subsidies’ was dropped from the text final.
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 good. common, managed for the benefit of all by those whose lives and livelihoods depend on it.
Only commoners have a tangible and emotional interest in preserving the seascape and using the resources of the sea in a sustainable way. And they should be compensated for the loss of the “blue commons”, with “common dividends” financed by levies on exploitation for private purposes.
Privatize the sea
Since 1945, when the United States unilaterally claimed ownership of the continental shelf and parts of the high seas around its coasts, much of the “blue commons” has been converted into private property.
In 1982, UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) approved the largest enclosure in history, granting countries Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) that stretched 200 nautical miles from their coasts. This put in place procedures and institutional mechanisms that extended privatization and financialization to all parts of the maritime economy.
It also cemented neo-colonialism, granting former imperial countries such as the United States, France and the United Kingdom millions of square miles around land far from their shores – their so-called “overseas territories”. “.
It is difficult to overstate the extent of the plunder of the “blue commons” in the period of neoliberal economic domination since the 1980s. The seas have become the frontier of global rentier capitalism. The spread claws of finance capital are evident almost everywhere, with private equity growing in importance.
The financial sector, led by the World Bank, piloted the much-vaunted “blue growth” strategy, promising an unlikely combination of economic growth, poverty reduction and environmental improvement. For-profit collections seem tempting. If the seas were a country, the revenues generated by all maritime activities would make it the seventh largest economy in the world, which (at least before Covid) is expected to experience rapid growth fueled by tourism, ports and maritime transport.
Uniquely British issues
Certain issues affecting the marine environment are particularly relevant in Britain. Together, they justify the creation of a “national commission on the blue economy”, to redefine the economic and social policy concerning our waters.
The UK government operates a regressive, loosely administered fishing quota system that grants private property rights to commercial fishing companies. Most of the UK fishing quota goes to a handful of big companies. More than a quarter was given to just five families, all on the Sunday Times rich list. A single giant vessel – registered in the UK but owned by the Netherlands – holds 23% of the English quota.
The fishing quota allocation system is opaque and susceptible to corruption. But the government’s Fisheries Act 2020, which regulates post-Brexit fishing, brought no changes. This has led to chronic – often illegal – overfishing compounded by the fact that infractions are treated as minor civil, not criminal, offences.
To take just one example: in 2015, the Dutch super-trawler mentioned above was caught with 632,000 kilos of illegally caught mackerel. He was fined just £102,000 and then allowed to sell the fish for £437,000 and keep his share of the quota.
To compound this impunity, the Royal Navy and Scotland’s Marine Sea Fisheries Inspectorate have just 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 Organization (MMO), England’s regulator, has seen its budget slashed as part of austerity, leading to a sharp drop in inspections and investigations of fisheries breaches and a drop similar warnings and prosecutions.
Marine protection in name only
The UK government has widely claimed that it is extending its protection of the sea and marine species through Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), also known as Marine Conservation Zones. These cover almost a quarter of UK territorial waters. But most MPAs are poorly protected, with highly destructive fishing methods such as bottom trawling and dredging permitted in many.
Recently, the MMO filed a lawsuit against Greenpeace for dropping rocks in supposedly protected areas to disrupt trawling. The judge had the good sense to dismiss the case as “absurd”, urging the MMO to do its job and not harass those who are made to act in its place. Meanwhile, BP recently received the green light from another government regulator to dump thousands of tonnes of steel pipes and cables from a disused oil rig into an MPA in the North Sea.
Under common law in the UK, the monarchy and the government are meant to be trustees or stewards, responsible for preserving the commons as such for future generations. Instead, they handed over the commons to multinational corporations to exploit for profit, with minimal environmental protections or compensation for commoners – the British public.
For example, in another sale of the “blue commons”, the Crown Estate (the Queen’s estate company) was allowed to auction off large swaths of seabed around Britain to companies multinationals for offshore wind farms. The final round in 2021 will bring in up to £9billion over ten years for the Royal Family and the Treasury.
Deep sea mining – and worse to come
Even greater concerns lie ahead: deep-sea mining (aka “seabed harvesting”) for minerals and the extension of intellectual property rights to “marine genetic resources” (MGRs), which present a particular interest in medicine.
UK Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of US arms firm Lockheed Martin, in partnership with the UK government, holds licenses to search the Pacific for deep-sea mining sites. The high demand for minerals such as cobalt and lithium , important to the electronics and renewable energy industries, means that deep-sea mining promises to be highly profitable, but threatens to cause potentially catastrophic damage to marine ecosystems.
The International Seabed Authority (ISA), the regulatory body for deep-sea mining in more than half of 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 caused by seabed mining, but not stopping or even limiting it, despite calls from leading scientists for a moratorium. And the ISA’s pitiful budget is nowhere near big enough to monitor what giant corporations are doing.
If the ISA fails to agree a mining code, after years of delay, unregulated commercial seabed mining could begin next year.
As for intellectual property rights, the UK has missed the proverbial boat. Companies in just three countries, Germany, the United States and Japan, hold more than three-quarters of the thousands of patents already filed on marine genetic resources. Surprisingly, a single multinational, the German chemical giant BASF, holds almost half of the patents.
These patents will secure monopoly blue economy revenue streams for many years to come and give wealthy corporations in wealthy countries private control over a key research and development program that affects the world.
Teaser photo by Francisco Jesús Navarro Hernández on Unsplash