Established and emerging users of the oceans are beginning to encroach on marine areas beyond national jurisdiction, leading experts characterise the ocean as the last frontier of exploitation on the planet, a figurative final "Wild West".

Ocean governance

The final Wild West

Increasing exploitation of ocean areas beyond national jurisdiction present serious governance challenges

Story highlights

  • Study reveals increased use of ocean areas located beyond national jurisdictio
  • This may lead to unanticipated 'slow burning emergencies' and 'rude surprises'
  • Dealing with these challenges requires emergence of transformative governance institutions

Being terrestrial creatures, much of our environmental concerns are focused on the land, coasts and the atmosphere. We tend to forget the sea, particularly those parts outside the control of nation states.

In a new study published in the journal Global Environmental Change, a group of scientists from the centre and other institutions working together in the international “Nereus Program – Predicting the Future Ocean” draw attention to the unique governance challenges that face our oceans and how the ‘high seas’ have been characterized as the last frontier of exploitation on the planet, a figurative final "‘Wild West".

"It was long thought that the open-ocean and deep seas were too distant to be affected by technological innovation and changing markets, however this is not the case. We are witnessing an increased use of ocean areas located beyond national jurisdiction," says lead author and centre PhD student Andrew Merrie.

Deep sea mining, inhabiting the ocean, fishing of as yet undiscovered species, geoengineering and harvesting of marine genetic resources are all activities on the rise, making the future uncertain for the parts of our ocean outside the governing jurisdiction of individual countries.

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Trends in uses
The argument is often made that humans are using the oceans in many ways, but what does this use actually look like? Andrew Merrie and his team collected and analysed much of the available information on human uses of the oceans and how these uses have changed over time. 

"We used this data to create a graphical baseline which could describe not only the overall human use of the oceans but also the emergence of new users and unexpected dynamics linked to the way humans use the oceans,"says Merrie.

These use and exploitation trends included both those for living marine resource such as fish and non-living marine resources such as oil and gas. For instance, the exploration depth for ocean oil and gas resources has gone from less than five hundred metres in the mid-1960s to over three thousand metres today. This is because of the rapid advancement of technology that is enabling the exploitation of the deep oceans potentially even in areas not under the jurisdiction of nation states.

"The main conclusion of this trends analysis is that diverse resources in these areas outside national jurisdiction are becoming more attractive to a significant group of users and the technology that makes exploitation feasible and economically viable is being developed. As such, these users are sitting on the doorstep of these vast marine areas and there are only inadequate governance mechanisms in place," says Merrie.

Governing surprise – an oxymoron?
He argues that it is time to move beyond just the user groups we already know about and think about new users and other surprises that may lead to unanticipated shifts and unique governance challenges.

The paper distinguishes between two types of such unexpected dynamics: 'Slow burning emergencies' and 'rude surprises'.

The first level of surprise dynamic occurs where fragmented and insufficient regulation in the high seas creates a "gold rush" effect, where resource users are able to make large investments in technology and exploit resources before governance institutions can react. By contrast, 'rude surprises' are situations where completely unexpected, highly unlikely and largely unforeseen challenges may develop, potentially within a governance vacuum.

"What we see is that many existing institutions are not up to the task of ‘embracing surprise’ and that the emergence of transformative governance institutions will be required to address these new challenges," he concludes.

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Published: 2014-08-05


Merrie, A., Dunn, D.,  Metian, M., Boustany, A.M., Takei, Y., Oude Elferink, A., Ota, Y., Christensen, V., Halpin, P.N., Österblom, H. (2014). An ocean of surprises – Trends in human use, unexpected dynamics and governance challenges in areas beyond national jurisdiction. Global Environmental Change,27, 19-31. DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.04.012

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Andrew Merrie has a background in Political Science and International Business. His PhD project, 'Global Governance of Marine Resources — Actors, Networks and Organisations', uses specific cases to highlight and assess key non-state actors involved in global governance of marine resources and the governability of marine resources embedded in the global economy.

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