Out of sight, out of mind?

Editorial: The High Seas

Richard Clayton, the Maritime Foundation

The high seas, whatever their definition, are certainly out of sight. Through the exposure of Blue Planet II and other glimpses of the deep, we catch sight of the wonder of another world – and the tragedy of what we are doing to it. But while exposure of man’s inhumanity to nature shocks us, it does so only briefly. The high seas remain out of mind. That must worry all of us.

Although the high seas account for more than 60% of the world’s oceans and a staggering 43% of the Earth’s surface, less is known about the seafloor than about the surface of Mars. According to the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, only about 1% of the total research spend worldwide goes on ocean science. That has prompted the United Nations to designate 2021–2030 as the Decade of Ocean Science, as is explained in this issue of Maritime magazine.

RRS Discovery
RRS Discovery, research vessel of Britain’s
National Oceanography Centre, part of the
Natural Environment Research Council. Photo: NOC

Every user of our oceans has the potential to be an abuser, whether commercial shipping, fishing, seabed mining or naval activity. Even those of us who rarely venture out to sea are branded as unwitting polluters, with plastic very much in the spotlight. It’s not that we want to pollute or over-extract or degrade – it’s just that our lifestyle incorporates a massive degree of ocean-blindness. We care little about the lack of intergovernmental governance of the world’s high seas, and most of us are unaware of how we are slowly but steadily damaging what used to be the last, critical wilderness.

As an ocean nation, Britain has a particular interest in turning things round. When overseas territories are taken into consideration, Britain is responsible for protecting the fifth largest exclusive economic zone in the world. There is a real need to ensure that the United Nations conference on protecting biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction achieves what it sets out to do. Oceanic zones recognise no hard borders – the lines on a map are not lines in the sea.

Britain’s dependence on the sea is as strong as it has ever been. The Maritime Foundation’s core messages have remained remarkably relevant – and its original objective of raising public and parliamentary awareness of the importance of Britain’s maritime industries, commerce, and defence continues to be crucial at a time when reasoned, rational and insightful debate is increasingly rare.

Despite the decline in the number of Britain’s maritime companies, the sector continues to contribute strongly to the nation’s economy – a contribution that could be hugely enhanced with the right support.

A portion of Britain’s seaborne trade on CMA CGM Antoine de Saint Exupery at Southampton docks. The French-flagged vessel is the largest container ship based in Europe.

Environmental concerns are providing

Britain can learn from other countries in the field of oceanography and maritime research. The picture shows SeaSim, the marine environmental research facility created by Siemens for the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS). Photo: Christian Miller

Environmental concerns are providing a catalyst for new initiatives and business models in Britain’s maritime sector as it transitions to greener and smarter shipping, offshore renewable energy, and automated and digital technologies. However, understanding the marine environment – whether close to shore or out in the high seas – is highly dependent on knowledge and resources, especially oceanographic research and maritime expertise.

Keeping the oceans in sight

This serves to highlight the crucial interdependence of Britain’s maritime interests, and the dangers of a domino effect when dominance in one sector is lost or when national maritime expertise becomes scarce. Other nations such as Norway and Denmark offer initiatives that Britain could follow; in contrast, the experience of countries that have abrogated their maritime responsibilities and now depend on foreign interests offers us a caution we should heed.

In a world that has taken its eye off the need to protect the whole planet, and not just the bits of it that we can see, and in a nation that has lost sight of anything beyond the shoreline, the role of the Maritime Foundation is clear. It must continue to take the lead in challenging public and political apathy on maritime matters. It is a long time since there was good research into the level of national understanding of shipping. Qualitative research into attitudes and knowledge of maritime issues is long overdue. Not only would such research challenge assumptions and generate fresh debate, but it would also provide a good platform for the Foundation to promote its broader initiatives to raise awareness.

Maritime magazine can only touch on the issues addressed here. If you’d like to plunge deeper into the high seas and learn more, the Maritime Foundation team – now based on HQS Wellington moored at London’s Victoria Embankment – is happy to help.

To contact the Maritime Foundation, please email secretary@maritimefoundation.uk or ring +44 (0)300 365 8100