Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

Who owns the sea? Technically, we do

Over-fishing and the commercialisation of the oceans is having a devastating effect on the environment. At a Festival of Debate event, Guy Standing looked at who owns the sea. 

Dramatic cliffs with the sea and a cloudy sky

Flamborough cliffs

Philippa Willitts

Did you know that since 535 AD, all of us technically own the sea? With the earth being covered by 71% ocean, you would think that this would be discussed more often.

Whilst we don’t ‘own’ the sea in a private-ownership way, the Roman Empire’s Justinian Code, which is the basis for common law today around the world, ruled that ‘some things by the law of nature are common to all’.

This means that we, as ‘commoners’, have equal rights to the use of 'common property’, such as the sea, and the ‘common properties’ that come along with that like the sea bed and fish.

So why is it that before our eyes, our oceans have been taken over by multi-million pound fishing companies and our governments are failing to implement the legislation that protects the commons from ecological destruction?

Economist and author Guy Standing spoke at Festival of Debate about what is happening to our oceans in the event The Blue Commons: Rescuing the Economy of the Sea, also the title of his new book.

Each one of us has a right to ‘common property’ but this comes with some responsibility, as Standing explains: ‘‘a commons must be preserved and passed onto future generations either in equal form or in enhanced form”.

Yet a quick Google search will show you that our seas are on the brink of an ecological disaster for marine and human life.

Examples of this that Guy pointed out were:

  • One fifth of the world's population will be refugees from rising sea levels in the next few decades
  • 130 million people are dependent entirely on coral reefs, which are disappearing very fast
  • Of 28,000 known species of fish in the sea, over a third are disappearing because the killing rate is higher than the reproduction rate
  • Every year, over 11 million tonnes of plastic enter the sea and this is rising

A main factor that can explain the transition from our waters being an equal commons for everyone, to now something that is exploited by companies whose main objective is money, is the financialisation of the sea.

Standing said:

When you lose a commons it is done through a process: encroachment, neglect, enclosure, privatisation, commodification and financialisation.

This process prioritises the maximum profit from our oceans, which drives the practices that result in the damage we are seeing today. Alongside this comes the demand for technology, which enables companies to catch more of their product. This is having major impacts on the eco-systems that live there.

However, as Guy Standing points out, this is not the only problem with industrial fishing:

Out in the sea there are over 97,000 ships, over 100 tonnes each and growing.

Each decade the noise levels in the sea double and noise in the sea travels thousands of miles and disturbs the migration and breeding patterns of many species out there.

Whilst there is an increase in the size and number of the fishing boats, chronic overfishing is also set to leave the oceans virtually empty in the next 20 years.

According to research by The World Counts, 'The world could run out of seafood as we know it by 2048, leading to severe ecological imbalances, a collapse of global fish stocks, and profound socioeconomic impacts on coastal communities and industries that depend on a healthy marine life.'

The depletion of fish populations already means the quality and size of a catch is lower, which adds more pressure to industrial fishing.

Standing explained:

We have a situation today where despite improvements in technologies and so-called rules, the hourly catch of an industrial fisher is only 6% of what it was a hundred years ago.

Aquaculture in the 1970s meant 4% of all the fish we ate came from fish farms, today it is well over half. By the end of the decade it is likely to be well over two thirds.

Fishing boats in the sea.

Brixham trawlers


So how has this been allowed to continue? Legally, the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ‘established that every coastal country had territorial rights [...] for 200 nautical miles from their coast', according to Standing.

Within this, the UK government has to set up a quotas system which establishes a private property right in terms of fish, and gives fishing companies a percentage of the total allowable catch of a certain species.

Guy pointed out:

Today just 13 companies, of 25 companies altogether, own well over two thirds of the total allowable catch around Britain.

Five have over a third and they are in the Sunday Times rich list, and where there are thousands of small-scale fishermen they have lost out.

The quota system has led to finance coming in, so that the finance facilitates mergers and acquisitions and so the bigger boys get bigger and the smaller people get turned into leaseholders and sharecroppers.

Guy also suggests that government subsidies are having a negative outcome:

Subsidies have led to overfishing, depletion of fish populations and conglomeration.

Every year over $35 billion is given in subsidies to industrial fisheries, and almost all the subsidies go to big corporations and small-scale fishermen hardly get anything at all.

Whilst this may focus on British fishing, similar practices all over the world have meant this is an issue on a global scale.

Standing said:

Margaret Thatcher privatised all of our ports in the 1980s, that is the case for all the 835 major ports in the world.

They were part of our heritage then they became enclosed, privatised and financialised, so three companies own the majority of ports in the world.

The right to equal access to the Blue Commons affects everyone around the world, so what are the first steps when thinking about how to reclaim and protect our commons?

Guy Standing suggests that:

What we need to do today is to realise that we want our commons back, we want them back either in the form that they are a commons or the value of the commons to be spread around all the commoners.

Although reclaiming the commons seems out of reach for us as individuals, together we can incite change from the legal bodies to help protect our seas.

Regulation needs to be enforced that protects our commons and breaks the cycle of a few massive companies exploiting and ruining it for the generations to come.

Reviving and preserving the commons should be at the top of everyone's priority list when thinking about the sea, because without it we all suffer.

The sea is for each and every one of us as commoners, and we must demand it back before it is too late.

Filed under: 

More Equality & Social Justice

More Equality & Social Justice