Disputes over the resources of the oceans

Why argue over the sea?

There has been an increasing interest in oceanic resources in recent years; this is to do with the realisation that the earth’s stock of physical resources are being depleted at an increasingly accelerated rate. Covering nearly 75% of the planet, the oceans embrace most of the earth’s biosphere – the region where life occurs. The ocean’s resources are a treasure for current and future generations. The value of these resources is inestimable; the value of indirect resources (for carbon storage, atmospheric gas regulation, nutrient cycling and waste treatment) for instance, is put at $11.7 trillion alone!

As population increases, demands for food, products and services from the oceans and seas will increase. Likewise demands for living and recreational space along the shoreline will also grow. This has led to a scramble by nation states and those interested solely in commercial exploitation to stake claims and to appropriate sea resources. Conflicts and disputes over claims for/to sea space, fisheries and minerals around the world have proliferated. There are about ten major disputes/year for the International Court of Justice to legislate upon, and the numbers of such cases are increasing, e.g. Cameroon–Nigeria, are disputing oil reserves and exploration off the Bakassi Peninsula; Spain–Canada, are disputing fishery limits off Canada; Japan–Korea/Japan–China, are contesting island ownership off their shores.


CASE STUDY - What are the sea’s resources?

  • Navigation space - There is a basic right of unimpeded passage and navigation, this established through the Law of the Sea Conferences. There are at present some 55 000 ships plying the seas, about 35% are oil tankers. The most congested points are the straits and ports.
  • Living resources - At present the oceans of the world contribute 14% of animal protein for human consumption. This could substantially increase in the future. Clearly stocks will have to be managed but, it’s been estimated that up to 110 million tonnes of fish/year could be sustainably landed in the future. High protein krill and fish farming will also contribute too.
  • Mineral resources
    • On the continental shelf, i.e. sand, gravel, tin, diamonds, manganese nodules, phosphate nodules and minerals of all kinds.
    • Under the continental shelf, i.e. oil, gas/coal and sulphur.
  • The sea as a waste sink? - The sea has a great capacity to dilute and degrade waste. It negates the installation of expensive pollution control on land. In the future this will have to be controlled.
  • Wave energy and tidal power - Both are of strategic and economic use!

It should be clear from this brief coverage why there is this rush for marine space and why the seeds of future conflict exist, and will continue to be sown. The case studies below highlight two issues to do with the sea, those of conflict and stewardship.

CASE STUDY - The muddle that is the South China Sea - China has again imposed a two-month ban on fishing in the South China Sea. The Philippines fear the ban could bolster China’s sovereignty claims in the area. The ban is the second to be imposed by China in the South China Sea. Philippine diplomats have said that while the ban could mean less Chinese presence and ‘intrusions’ in the Philippine-claimed Kalayaan islands and Scarborough Shoal – all located in the South China Sea – it could also bolster Chinese authority over the Philippine-claimed territory. Both China and the Philippines claim the shoal. The Kalayaan Islands are a part of the Spratleys but the shoal is not. The Spratleys are claimed in part or as a whole by China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, with China claiming the whole South China Sea.

Source: The Guardian April 2000

CASE STUDY - Oil exploration around the Falklands - After drilling the first six exploration wells in the North Falkland Basin, oil companies have found at least two hydrocarbon systems. The search for commercial accumulations will be the next major stage, but timing may depend on improved oil prices. The operators, Amerada Hess, Shell, LASMO and IPC form a consortium called FOSA (the Falklands Oil Sharing Agreement) who are responsible both for the exploration of the oil but also for the careful environmental extraction of it. The Falkland Island Government is paying close attention to safeguarding the environment in the event of a major commercial oil discovery. The Falklands Island Government and the oil companies working in the area are anxious to maintain the pristine conditions that exist in the region for future generations.

Source: The Guardian April 2000


Whether the sea can solve the problems of world resource depletion rests very much on whether ways can be found to reconcile the uses that will be made of the sea, and the interests of both coastal and landlocked states (such states have a right to the benefits accrued from common property resources too!). Additionally, usage of the oceans must be balanced with appropriate stewardship.

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