A new legal order in the high seas must prevent marine riches from being monopolised or privatised
In his 1968 essay The Tragedy of the Commons, the ecologist Garrett Hardin argued that resources which do not clearly belong to anyone are likely to be overexploited, since protecting them is in no one person’s interest. That tragedy is unfolding on the high seas – the two-thirds of the ocean that lies beyond coastal states’ national jurisdiction. This is a commons, where fishing and mining have been opened to all. The result is serious damage to a vital resource that covers almost half the planet’s surface. The high seas are not entirely lawless. Yet only a tiny fraction of these waters are protected from exploitation, despite harbouring the world’s marine wilderness and its unique biodiversity.
Beneath the waves lies a rich prize. Many scientists think the high seas harbour novel disease-fighting chemistry that might lead to new drugs. Until this month, there was no mechanism to prevent nations or companies monopolising the world’s marine genetic resources. One study in 2018 pointed out that BASF, which calls itself “the largest chemical producer in the world”, owned nearly half of the 13,000 patents derived from marine organisms. Mining exploration licences in the Pacific alone span an area almost as wide as the US. If deep sea extraction were permitted to go ahead, many warn, it would lead to biodiversity loss on an enormous scale.