Missing In Action: The (Democratic) Politics of the Ocean

by Chris Armstrong on October 31, 2022

Yesterday I gave a talk at a ‘thought festival’ in the Netherlands, on the future of the ocean. The size of the audience far exceeded my (quite modest) expectations. And the discussion we had was extremely engaged and informed. Clearly, people care about the ocean, and the various challenges it now faces, largely thanks to us (from warming and acidification to plastic pollution, from destructive fishing practices to the growth of ‘dead zones’ around our coasts). I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Since I published a book on the topic in February, I’ve been blown away by the public interest. I’ve been doing a talk, podcast or interview at least once a week since then. Everyone I’ve spoken to – whether that means ordinary citizens, academics, civil society organisations, or activists – feels that attention to these issues is long overdue.

Which brings me to the central puzzle. Ocean governance has become highly salient, politically – probably more than ever before. But when people ask me, “what can I do to help push ocean politics in the right direction?” the answer is far from obvious. Of course, people can make a direct impact on the ocean’s health in many ways. That could mean plogging (look it up!), avoiding farmed salmon, cutting down on plastic, or a whole variety of things. Still, if the rules under which the ocean is governed are basically dysfunctional, the effect of these measures is going to be limited. Picking plastic from the beach – which I’m not knocking for a second – won’t turn around the juggernaut of an industrialising ocean. It won’t stop seabed mining, or octopus farming, or whatever next year’s catastrophic plan will be. That would take a larger political movement, and a positive defence of the kind of ocean we want to see. But how do we affect the politics of the ocean? Where, in fact, is the politics of the ocean? What would be the political entry point for concerned citizens?

When I say the ocean has been ‘depoliticized,’ I don’t mean, of course, that there is no politics of the ocean. Decisions do get made. In 1982, the Law of the Sea Convention ushered in the largest single extension of state territory in history. (I don’t remember it being extensively discussed in the media – but then I was eight years old, so forgive me if I missed it). Right now, the United Nations is discussing the rules that should govern biodiversity in the High Seas (it has been trying and failing to secure a binding treaty for a couple of decades now). Each coastal country regularly makes political decisions about the exploitation of the ocean (will it support offshore wind? What about gas? How are fishing rights going to be allocated?). But when is the last time you recall politicians campaigning on ocean issues?

British readers might have a ready answer: 2016. In the Brexit campaign, Leave-supporting politicians suddenly decided that the allocation of fishing rights raised basic issues of fairness. Having secured the votes of many fishing communities (and a disastrous Brexit), it seems that those issues of fairness can now be safely forgotten. Either way, politicians are not being called upon to lay out a vision of the kind of ocean they want. Very few governments even have ministries of the ocean (ministries of fishing are not the same thing!). Very few political manifestos make any sustained effort to address ocean-facing issues. The cosy relationship between politicians, the fossil fuel industry, and the industrial fishing lobby goes on undisturbed. One alarming story, which I relate in my book, comes from a 2019 meeting of the International Seabed Authority in Kingston, Jamaica. This is the body that is supposed to come up with rules to regulate deep sea mining, which is inching ever closer. At that meeting, the job of representing the Belgian state was given, not to a politician, or even to a civil servant, but to an executive from a Belgian seabed mining corporation. It was as if the United States had not bothered to send a delegate to a WTO meeting and just allowed Jeff Bezos to speak on its behalf. I like to think that is quite unlikely (I may be wrong). But in the murky world of ocean politics, the divide between political and corporate power is much less clear-cut.

What, then, is the alternative? That’s what some audience members wanted to know yesterday. How do you force an issue onto the political agenda when not a single party is choosing to prioritise it? Likewise, ocean scientists often talk about the importance of educating people about the ocean, and the challenges it faces. I think this is very important. But the question is what comes next. What is a citizen informed about the threats faced by the ocean meant to do?



neil 10.31.22 at 8:22 pm

Read Paul Segal?


engels 10.31.22 at 9:51 pm

Very deep problems; I hope the tide will turn.


John Quiggin 11.01.22 at 2:33 am

Welcome to CT, Chris!

I’m a bit older so I can remember the 1982 UNCLOS and even the last of the Cod Wars leading up to it. Deep seabed mining was talked about a lot then, but didn’t happen at the time.

If deep sea mining really looks like happening, I’d expect to see a push to extend existing claims beyond 200nm. On the whole, that seems more favorable to sustainable management than anything that’s likely to be agreed on in the current global environment (of course, as an Australian I would think that).

Finally, any thoughts about coral reefs? The Great Barrier Reef is more politically salient in Australia than fisheries policy, which has been pretty much settled by the creation of individual transferable quotas.


Matt 11.01.22 at 5:06 am

But when is the last time you recall politicians campaigning on ocean issues?

It’s surely an exaggeration to say “all politics is local”, but it is the case that “local” issues are easier to get voters interested in, I’d guess. Does this answer a lot of the question? In the US, outside of coastal states I suspect it’s extremely difficult to be a successful politician if you’re devoting lots of time to ocean issues, and even though a very larger percentage of the US population lives in coastal states, because of the political system, the non-coastal states can largely control the political process. (And, even in coastal states, politicians from non-coastal regions will often not be intrested in ocean issues, and sometimes directly hostile to them – politicians in eastern Washington or Oregon, and probably non-gulf Texas, are not likely to devote much energy to the issues, and will see them in narrowly instrumental ways, at best, I suspect.)

I don’t have good suggestions about combatting this, and I’m not happy about it, but I think it explains a lot of it.


Tim Worstall 11.01.22 at 7:29 am

“British readers might have a ready answer: 2016. In the Brexit campaign, Leave-supporting politicians suddenly decided that the allocation of fishing rights raised basic issues of fairness. Having secured the votes of many fishing communities (and a disastrous Brexit), it seems that those issues of fairness can now be safely forgotten.”

Well, yes, and sorta. I was one of those there. And as far as Ukip actually had a theoretician about fishing – rather than the usual political rhetoric – it was me. The underlying drive about fishing was that the EU system just didn’t work. It was pragmatic. The answer was – as JQ points out – “fisheries policy, which has been pretty much settled by the creation of individual transferable quotas.” Perhaps with another layer on it. Inshore fisheries tend to have few enough people that they’re under the Ostrom limit of how many people can successfully organise a communitarian limit on the exploitation of the resource. So, use that solution. Deep sea needs ITQs at minimum, almost certainly with extensive no fishing zones (I know there’s a word for that but can’t think of it right now).

Open ocean, outside EEZs, difficult to have those ITQs. So, well, no one really knows – except that the no fishing zones should be there at a minimum.

Now, that that didn’t happen, at least as yet, shows there was indeed a flaw. But that then speaks to the other point being made about that Brexit campaign. How do you create just such a campaign? You have to have a very simple message. “EU Yah Boo Sucks!” is about the level of sophistication possible. You also need to include anyone and everyone who thinks that. From, yes, the edge of the mouthbreathing racists (but not the actual fascists) through to those complaining about, say, the correct and pragmatic way to manage fisheries. Then you’ve got to get into electoral politics and work at it for a few decades.

Yes, I know, most around here won’t think of Brexit as having worked. But it did work. A campaign to take the UK out of the EU was started, carried on for two decades, achieved the goal. That’s working. Whether you think that’s something that should have been done is entirely different from whether it was an effective campaign to achieve that one single goal.

This also shows the problem with exactly that sort of campaign or campaigning. Underneath the “Yah, Boo, Sucks” was very little agreement about what comes next. Precisely because gaining sufficiently widespread support meant reducing to that lowest common denominator. That’s just a basic problem with any widespread political movement.


Chris Armstrong 11.01.22 at 8:27 am

@John Quiggin – There’s a bit of pedigree to this idea that the solution to ocean governance problems is to Balkanise the whole thing, including the deep ocean. The threat that rich states might declare exclusive economic zones right up to the centre of the Pacific (etc) helped keep poor states at the negotiation table during UNCLOS negotiations. There are multiple problems with territorialisation, of course: some countries don’t have coasts (the situation of ‘geographically disadvantaged countries’ has never really been settled in the Law of the Sea); many states lack either the capacity to enforce catch limits in their EEZs, or any inclination to do so; etc.

On coral reefs, who knows? I think the view that coral reefs are likely to disappear entirely by 2050 has been displaced somewhat by a view that they are likely to remain in some form: much less diverse, less colourful, populated by fewer, smaller fish. This is a massive tragedy but it’s hard to see what any individual state can now do to stave it off. Some corals can be transplanted to cooler water. But the outlook for the Great Barrier Reef is really not good.


Chris Armstrong 11.01.22 at 8:32 am

@Matt – I suspect you’re right about the local focus. There have been big successes for movements like surfers against sewage, plastic cleanups on beaches, etc. The question is whether those campaigns can supply an entry point to get people engaged with the bigger questions, about warming and acidification, industrial fishing, and habitat loss. I’m hopeful that they can play a role here, but I think we also need politicians, and public figures, to play a much bigger role than they do – not just highlighting the challenges the ocean faces, but painting pictures of what a properly governed ocean could look like and how we get there.


nastywoman 11.01.22 at 11:49 am

‘What is a citizen informed about the threats faced by the ocean meant to do?

Start surfing!

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