Now Underway, The Great Seabed Enclosure

A few years ago, Russia sent a submersible craft 4 kilometers beneath the North Pole to plant a titanium flag on the floor of the ocean. Its purpose: to stake a claim on the continental shelf where there may exist oil, gas and methane hydrates, a mineral deposit that can be a source of energy.

While not all nations imitate the galleons of the 18th Century in planting a flag in the name of a nation, dozens of countries around the world are now staking serious claims for huge swaths of the ocean floor. As The Economist magazine describes it, (thanks for James Quilligan for passing this along!), the latest land grab is inspired by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea adopted in 1982. Under the Convention, nations that ratified the treaty by May 13, 1999, had ten years in which to assert claims over specific tracts of the ocean floor that lay beyond the customary 200 nautical miles from shore.

Any claims must be verified as conforming to certain geological conditions (e.g., that it is indeed continental shelf) and certain legal definitions (that the area is near an island owned by a nation, and not simply near a rock that juts up from the ocean). But the more notable issue may be the conflicting legal claims to the ocean floor. Argentina is claiming sea rights that include the Falklands — the islands that Great Britain went to war over in 1982 — and parts of the South Pole.

Tanzania and Seychelles are claiming an area that Britain claims as its possession because it lies in the “Indian Ocean Territory.” Five nations that border the Arctic are expected to clash over the rights to exploit the underwater resources there, which could be plentiful. (And if the icecap melts a bit more, the seabed could become that much more accessible!) And so on.

Welcome to the land of exploration and conquest, Part II. Fortunately, any disputed claims are not likely to be settled by war, but rather by special tribunals in The Hague or in Hamburg, Germany. Still, no one in the debate, least of all the nations themselves or The Economist magazine, are asking a more pertinent question: What about the commons? What provisions are being made for protecting this priceless legacy of time from over-exploitation? What about the needs and rights of future generations?

Even though small nations like Barbados, Suriname and even landlocked countries may end up with disproportionate property claims over the continental shelf, surely the long-term stewardship of the ocean floor and maritime life should have a role as the land grab proceeds. History shows what happens from the kinds of imperial ambitions that we are now witnessing. For the moment, the commons is the the last thing on anyone’s minds.