Ocean values

Editorial: How do we value the oceans?

The aim of Maritime 2018 is to challenge assumptions about our relationship with the sea. In this context seaborne trade, maritime industries, ocean resources including energy and fish stocks, oceanographic research and hydrography, naval defence and security and the upholding of law and order in both coastal waters and the high seas all remain vitally important to the UK as an island nation.

Today, however, when we think of the value that we place on the oceans, there is a new focus emerging. Thanks in large part to the work of the media, there is a growing awareness that human interventions are damaging the oceans, and that some of the trends in the ecology of marine systems that are now being identified may be irreversible.

One key value of the oceans lies in their role as highways for commerce. Civilisations rely on seaborne trade, and trading networks evolve to satisfy our demands in all kinds of complex ways. The theme of trade runs through many of the articles in this publication, covering issues such as the future of the UK shipping industry and British ports, and the wide-ranging effects that trade wars are likely to have both on national economies and on the global shipping industry. It is also important to remember that trade has consequences for the ocean environment – for example through emissions, the discharge of ballast water and the diffusion of invasive species.

There is also value in the seabed – not only for the energy resources it holds but also for the massive network of communication cables that run across it. Disruption of these networks could become a serious strategic challenge as the established rules-based system of ocean governance shows signs of breaking down. And yet we know very little about the under-sea domain, with less than six per cent of the seabed currently mapped at high resolution. If we value the ocean, we must manage it sustainably and police it effectively, and these are two further vital threads that run through Maritime 2018. Several contributors discuss ocean pollution, reminding us that the sea can no longer be seen as a sink for throwaway plastics. Thanks to media intervention and environmental agencies we all now know that plastics of all sorts are finding their way into the aquatic food chain. But this creates a totally new type of problem, not simply for individuals but for humanity. How is this to be valued, and who has the responsibility to clear the ocean gyres in international waters? Who taxes whom for this purpose?

Nobody owns the high seas

There is a similar unresolved conflict of interest in the case of illegal fisheries. Nobody owns the high seas, and responsibility for law enforcement rests with the flag state of the fishing vessels involved – but it has to be recognised that flag states do not have the resources to cover deep-sea enforcement.

At last, the problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is being tackled by several agencies, using a range of tools from the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) to the development of remote-sensing technology. But regrettably there are still many unregulated outlets, and fish processing continues at an international industrial level: demand can always lead supply. This global problem needs an international response – but how is it to be valued, and who pays?

The struggle to achieve global compliance, balancing the economic aspirations of nation states and commercial companies, comes into focus again in relation to Antarctica. Like the open oceans, Antarctica and its delineated sea limits belong to no country. However, mineral extraction and exploitation of the waters and land territory have enormously profitable potential. How are the environmental concerns valued, and will the common heritage of mankind be the guiding principle?

Such matters may seem remote, but it is evident that the maritime scene has many dimensions. Some, such as boat building and leisure pursuits, are familiar to many of us – but others are less so, and Maritime 2018 also covers naval diving, trade wars, ocean research, the need for maritime educational initiatives. The multidimensional nature of the subject is matched by the astonishing range of expertise and insight demonstrated by the authors who have contributed to this publication, reflecting the breadth of the spectrum of their involvement with the oceans. To all our contributors, thank you for expanding our horizons and demonstrating not only the opportunities which exist within the sector but also the pressing challenges that need to be overcome.

The immensity of the oceans makes sustainable practices difficult to internalise in any meaningful way with respect to value. In spite of this we are seeing that perceptions really are changing – and that is because the media has the power to bring the ocean into our living rooms. Through the Maritime Media Awards, the Maritime Foundation has sought to give recognition to those authors, journalists, and programme makers who provide new insights into the factors which need to be accounted for when we come to reassess maritime values.

Julian Parker OBE,
the Maritime Foundation