Océans : la nouvelle frontière
Article Index

During the twentieth century, the oceans' frontier receded as humans pushed deeper and further into vast marine territories. Since coastal dwellers first attempted to tame a naturally hostile environment, one development has irrevocably changed the human/marine divide: today, humanity has access to the entire ocean. Distance from the coast and depth of the sea floor no longer pose insurmountable obstacles. The human community insistently pushes the oceans' limits, seeking to exploit all of their varied resources - fisheries, fuels, minerals and genetic material. Ocean frontiers are constantly redefined by new technologies, scientific discoveries, industrial requirements, national strategies, and most recently, by ecological imperatives; no sea escapes these demands.

Energy demands show, paradigmatically, how this frontier has retreated across the globe. Once conceived as an inaccessible and relatively unexplored world of ice, the Arctic now serves as a milepost in the race for new energy supplies. This race, started in the twentieth century, has gradually gained momentum (Chapter 13). Prior to World War II, oceans provided little oil; today they supply 30% of the world's fossil fuel needs. The sea thus satisfies the energy demands of an ever-increasing population through oil extracted from ultra-deep waters and wind turbines multiplying along coastlines (Chapter 3; Radar 13.1).

With new discoveries occurring daily, the frontiers of human knowledge about oceans have expanded, even as the physical ones recede in front of societies' pursuit of new resources and processes. The Census of Marine Life estimates that 6,000 new species have been found in the last decade. New navigation and fishing technologies allow further exploitation of some marine ecosystems, such as seamounts in the distant high seas. First discovered in the 1930s, seamounts remained mostly unknown until recent years, even though they have been intensively fished since the 1950s (Radar 2.1). Meanwhile, fish and shellfish farms have developed along coastlines, using feed and techniques previously reserved for land-based animals. These aquaculture installations have steadily grown larger, providing a large part of the world's protein production: in 2008, they accounted for 37% of global fish products.

Oceans also provide key links in the logistics and value chains of a rapidly globalizing world, as demonstrated by the impressive rise of seaborne cargo transport in all sectors (Chapter 8). "Ocean highways" now carry 80% to 90% of the world's freight volumes, serving as the backbone of a globalized twenty-first century world. All of these developments draw the ocean closer to the heart of contemporary human society.

This apparent "domestication" of the ocean accompanies a radical evolution in maritime economies, one similar to the modernization that drives mainland industries. The frail skiffs of earlier times, sailing near the coastline and dragging their small nets, have given way to massive trawlers - veritable ocean-going bulldozers. Fully equipped with sophisticated technology and capable of scouring the ocean floor 2,000 metres (6600 feet) below the high-seas surface in any weather, these "fish-killing machines" boast powerful engines that can haul in driftnets and extract loads of fish (Chapters 5, 9, 10; Radars 9.1, 9.2). These research-driven changes in the fishing industry follow dynamic models of fish stocks, built from massive empirical databases and the advanced technology used to assess fisheries.

As maritime economies have mutated they have also transformed the frontier between the mainland and ocean. The standardized 20- or 40-foot long box known as a container - a major technological innovation, bearing the colours of large international shipping lines - brought an age of ultra-large container ships that can carry 100,000 tonnes of an infinite variety of cargoes from Singapore to Rotterdam in twenty days (Chapter 8). But it has done much more than this to change the relation of land and sea. The container set standards for ports and inland freight conveyances, allowing intermodal transport chains to connect the world. This "containerization" has accelerated international trade by making logistics chains more efficient. A symbol of the globalized economy as much as of maritime transport, ocean freight containers reach the world's most isolated places, thousands of kilometres distant from any seaport. They structure mainland economies so powerfully that new economic centres form along shipping routes - themselves formed by market forces -, and landlocked countries fall behind, their economic growth lagging behind coastal nations by 1.5% on average.

In fact, the frontier between land and sea has blurred and will go on doing so. These chapters show that maritime economies were long confined to certain coastal points, organized around communities. That has changed in countries as economically diverse as Norway (Chapter 5), Senegal (Radar 9.1), Mauritania (Radar 9.2) and Namibia (Chapter 9). In each, the fishing industry has increased in complexity, organized around multiple professional networks that extend far inland. The oceans' natural resources - once the purview of small coastal communities - now serve as "national" resources, public property often exploited by large, international companies. "National policies" spill over the coastline to include ocean resources, much as they do for energy resources. For instance, Namibia's stability since independence in 1990 depends on national fishing revenues (Chapter 9). Quayside negotiations in small fishing ports no longer set wholesale prices for fish; the cost also depends on subsidies granted by governments in capitals far from the coast, e.g. Brussels (Radar 9.2). Furthermore, international financial centres increasingly control fishermen's access to credit and their business activities (Chapter 5).

The various chapters in this volume bear witness to these increasingly intense, diverse and complicated evolutions - in relationships between societies and the sea, and between the states that comprise the international community, during the twentieth century and in the first decade of the twenty-first. They show how thoroughly technological innovations and economic, political and industrial factors renew the oceans' challenges. Still full of secrets, the seas remain relatively little known or explored (Chapter 2). Their riches, revealed with each new discovery, heighten entrepreneurial interest and offer much new product potential, particularly for pharmaceuticals (Chapter 11), water desalinization, and wave or tidal energy production. However, populations and economies increasingly concentrate along coasts worldwide, exposed to natural risks, e.g. tsunamis, and to climate change impacts, such as sea level rise (Chapter 14). Even as scientific discovery and economic opportunities draw humanity closer to oceans, these same spaces defy the potential their resources seem to offer.

A Threatened Shared Environment

Although long considered infinite spaces, where resources could be taken freely and without restraint, the oceans' resources are not inexhaustible. Rather, the ocean is fragile and its equilibrium precarious, its resources increasingly threatened. Shipping's exponential growth in recent decades multiplies risks to ecosystems and species. Massive oil spills justifiably anger and alarm coastal residents; yet hydrocarbon pollution (from illegal emptying of fuel tanks) and non-native species incursions (from de-ballasting operations) cause more damage to biodiversity on a daily basis. The "silent world" magisterially shown by Commander Jacques Cousteau is only a distant memory; ships cause intense acoustic pollution, affecting fish, marine mammals and invertebrates.

At the same time, scarce fisheries resources raise growing concerns. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 75% of marine species are fully exploited or over-exploited. Massively-deployed industrial fishing techniques - sometimes subsidized to ensure the industry's profitability - threaten the survival of some species, destroy deepwater habitats, and cast a shadow over the future of millions who depend on fishing for a living (Chapter 9; Radars 9.2, 5.1). Furthermore, the exponential growth in traditional pursuits poses an even greater threat when joined by new industries - many just as risky for marine ecosystems. Increased knowledge about the mechanisms that govern deepwater habitats has opened opportunities, for pharmaceuticals in particular, but it is vital that the industry find bioprospecting methods that preserve ecosystems (Chapter 11).

Humanity's footprint extends over spaces previously preserved from contact - the Arctic providing an emblematic example (Chapter 13) - and ocean exploitation risks are often extreme or unreasonable (Radar 13.1). We can trawl the ocean floor at 1,500 metres (5,000 feet), drill for oil more than 2,000 metres (6,500 feet) deep, and extract DNA from species living in the ocean's depths. But, astonishingly, we remain incapable of stopping a pipeline from spewing oil, as seen in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico (Radar 13.1). We flail, impotent, when fighting oil slicks, and remain completely at a loss when faced with the Pacific Trash Vortex (Radar 13.2). And in this inventory of threats to the ocean, we must not forget one often-ignored factor: more than 80% of ocean pollutants come from land-based activity. Industry, agriculture, tourism, urbanization - this silent pollution has many sources and even more enduring and harmful effects. For instance, in the Mediterranean basin, more than half of urban wastewater enters the sea without any treatment. It is the earth, above all, that makes the oceans unwell (Radars 7.3, 13.2): the seas serve as trash bins for urban garbage, waste from defective sanitation systems, and agricultural pollutants running off into rivers and oceans (Radar 7.3).

Different parties, motivated by diverse interests and values, strive to share the oceans; inevitably, this leads to conflict. Seaports in particular illustrate the conflicts inherent in sharing this environment: they are synonymous with pollution and danger because of their concentrated petroleum and petrochemical installations. Seaports face increasing environmental pressure in North America, Europe and even Busan, China (Chapter 8). Vitally strategic at the national level, at the local level seaports prove controversial, not simply for environmental issues, but because of their contribution (or, increasingly, lack of it) to local economies. Many ports risk becoming autonomous territories, no longer ensuring local economic growth. More closely connected to other seaports and major cities in the hinterland than to their immediate contexts, ports impose many negatives - noise, pollution, heavy traffic, etc. - on their nearby host cities. The dominant "landlord" port model, where a private operator runs a publicly-owned concession, may mean that the port favours its operator's demands even when they conflict with local interests. The most extreme case arises when a port situated in a coastal community serves only as a transhipment hub, disconnected from the local economy, contributing nothing positive.

As some find more - and more intensive - uses for the oceans, they raise barriers to others' use; formerly open to all, the oceans grow increasingly divided, compartmentalized and closed-off. Fisheries access provides a striking example: whether along the West African coast or in Norway's territorial waters, industrial fishing rests on very limited rights to quotas defined by fisheries management plans. Control of these rights by a small "club" of users who combine industrial and political interests causes major conflicts with local, artisanal fishermen who are often forgotten in national fisheries policies, particularly in developing countries. This has often led to serious conflicts between traditional fisherman and modern fishing companies, creating political unrest in turn. Consequently, the most desirable fish stocks go to export markets while local economies must settle for lesser fish, as occurs in Senegal (Radar 9.1).

Scientific knowledge has greatly contributed to enclosing and delimiting resources, via the fish stocks analyses or oil reserve estimates used in management plans. However, the history of ocean exploration (Chapter 2) has also produced new types of research and knowledge; with ecosystem preservation as a founding principle, new studies have addressed the social consequences of maritime industries. This type of research has highlighted previously invisible phenomena, such as acoustic pollution from ships, land-based pollution impacts on the marine environment, and shipbreaking's effects on workers' health in Asian yards (Radar 4.1).

The Oceans' Governance Challenge

The international community is fully aware of such issues, and has deliberated them for many decades; international environmental law has, in fact, largely grown up around marine issues. Still, some environmentally progressive actions have emerged, reshaping Grotius' seventeenth-century notion of high-seas freedom (Mare Liberum). A "Constitution for the Oceans" was created in 1982 - the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The result of long negotiations after World War II, UNCLOS drew up rules aimed at sustainable and peaceful use of the oceans and their resources by putting a large part of both under national jurisdiction.

However, everything moves quickly in the maritime world, and UNCLOS has not kept pace on several fronts. First, it provides only fragmented regulation, leaving nearly 70% of the ocean subject to the relative and largely archaic principle of high seas freedom (Chapter 11; Radar 11.1). Second, the physical and biological dynamics operating - often trans-border in nature - overflow its very framework. Land-based pollution provides an illustration: it transgresses the frontier between land and sea before currents carry it away to the larger ecosystem; it then decomposes into micro-particles and is ingested by fish and other animals or aggregated into a vast plastic debris soup mid-ocean (Radar 13.2). Schools of fish also illustrate how biology "overlaps" or "crosses borders," outside UNCLOS' framework: fish have no need of a visa to swim from one territorial water to another, or to run in the high seas where Mare Liberum remains the rule (Chapter 8).

The strategies of maritime stakeholders also circumvent UNCLOS' constraints; designed in line with an evolving institutional framework, they seek to exploit its gaps. The maritime shipping industry owes its formidable economic efficiency to the unregulated system in which it developed (Chapter 8). Commercial competition has given birth to unregulated and suspect flags of convenience sailing beyond the reach of nations (Chapter 4). Tactics to evade fishing rules spring from colossal financial interests, difficult to counter. In the end, public authorities delegate marine resource management and regulation to private organizations - calling UNCLOS' founding principles into question, since it was intended to empower the oceans' management by nation-states rather than private parties. The oil industry pushes this trend to its extreme limit: the industry's financial interests overwhelm public means, while public officials lack the technical expertise needed to monitor sophisticated drilling operations (Radar 13.1). Not to be outdone, states, too, seek to overrun UNCLOS' constraints: they constantly promote their national interests (Chapter 1) and attempt to extend their territorial frontiers, as demonstrated by the race for the Arctic's energy reserves (Chapter 13). The fisheries agreements concluded between the European Union (EU) and some West African coastal nations shows the EU's fishing footprint far exceeds its territorial waters. Analysis of the agreements shows that they contribute to fisheries degradation and represent disguised subsidies to European fishing fleets (Radar 9.2). A great geopolitical game plays out around the oceans; nations have an interest in outstripping UNCLOS' framework, not to mention that some major countries - such as the United States - have never even ratified it.

The new relationship between oceans and societies brings together such a diversity of stakeholders and actors that cooperation - so critical for sustainable development - becomes a complex challenge. Divergent interests abound: nations attached to the historical concept of high seas freedom; governments aiming for an equitable share of ocean resources; shipowners seeking more rapid navigation; fishermen compensating for scarcities with heavier, deeper and more distant fishing; scientists dreaming of exploring new territories; industrialists hungry for new discoveries; non-governmental organizations demanding larger marine preserves. These competing interests clash in the negotiations fora, immensely complicating the decision-making process (Chapters 1, 6; Radar 11.1).

Without doubt, sectoral conventions (Chapter 6) and regional arrangements (Chapter 7; Radars 7.1, 7.2) have attempted to complete UNCLOS' global framework and refine tools for assessing (Radar 2.2), protecting (Radar 7.2), controlling and monitoring (Chapter 9) maritime industries and ecosystems. However, legal and institutional frameworks progress more slowly than human appropriation of the sea; they struggle to anticipate new practices and risks such as climate change impacts (Chapters 11, 12, 13, 14). Additionally, the sheer scale of ocean monitoring required limits efforts to manage resources sustainably (Chapter 9). These factors combine with others to undermine the effectiveness of international law - shared responsibility for environmental protection across several international bodies; the difficulty of integrating scientific recommendations in decision-making processes; the weak articulation between regional fishing and biodiversity conservation agreements.


The outlook is neither unduly pessimistic nor optimistic. It reflects the maritime world itself, torn between development aims and preservation needs - both mirroring, in turn, the many conflicting interests of the global community. This collection aims to enrich and nourish debate about changes that cause upheaval in maritime activities (Chapters 1 to 5), about the complexities involved in achieving sustainable resource use (Chapters 6 to 10), and about making tomorrow's economies compatible with ecosystem preservation (Chapters 11 to 14). Both global and cross-discipilinary in its approach, this volume treats the ocean's challenges scientifically, situating them in current political processes. It carefully explores diverse subjects, from marine ecosystems and sustainable fisheries management to genetic resources exploitation and the fight against ocean pollution, expanding knowledge about this new frontier.