Throughout written history the ocean has been a chancy source of food, a highway for trade and conquest, a battleground and a source of pleasure and recreation. It has been mostly a two-dimensional environment for which there has grown up a respectable body of law and precedent whose geopolitical significance and diplomatic utility are clearly understood. But now man is extending his reach into the third dimension, and traditional concepts of freedom of the high seas and of territorial waters are confounded by situations without precedent. Friend and foe alike join together at sea for common scientific purposes. Increasingly man is turning to the depths of the sea to meet the varied needs of his civilization ashore. International waters have become a matter of both national and private corporate interest. Conversely, private interests on and under the high seas have now become a matter of worldwide, multinational interest-as have those things that nations and individuals do along their own shorelines.

Looking just a little bit ahead, moreover, it is clearly evident that the things we now set out to do in the ocean will change the world as we know it-not so much geographically as economically, politically, demographically, climatologically and technologically. It is an alchemy, in fact, that has already begun and the rate of reaction is itself accelerating. Thus it is that in the world of international affairs, as well, the ocean assumes new dimensions-involving new problems and opportunities.

Consider that whatever level of social, political, technological and industrial order we have achieved, indeed whatever we have wrought, is the result mainly of our efforts in exploring and utilizing the physical assets of rather less than a third of our planet's surface. For dry land-the continents and the islands-constitutes slightly less than 30 percent of the area of the earth. The rest is water-a rigorous and complex fluid continuum known as the World Ocean, which until recently man utilized only superficially. If in the past it served largely to separate peoples and their viewpoints, it is now about to bring them together in cooperation for common purpose, in inconsiderate dispute and in honest conflict of interest. For all over the world men now view the ocean as a practical and exploitable resource with which to meet the needs of our advancing technological civilization.

The reasons man turns to the sea are axiomatic and incontrovertible; they stem from the sheer excellence of his technologies. Advances in medicine and public health have increased man's average life expectancy vastly. This, in turn, is producing a population growth of such magnitude that already it outstrips man's ability to derive sufficient food from the soil. Simultaneously, the galloping growth of his industries is depleting known reserves of critical raw materials-both mineral and energy resources-to a point where, in many cases, exhaustion is both predictable and imminent.

But, if demands spawned by his technological prowess now exceed his landborn resources, these very technologies also enable him to turn to the sea. Thus, while rising demand squeezes traditional supplies and pushes their prices up, a rapidly developing technology is pushing down the cost of working oceanic resources. Whenever these rising price and lowering cost curves cross, man turns to the sea. This happened hundreds of centuries ago with food, sponges, red coral, pearls and salt evaporated from seawater. More recently it has happened with petroleum, sulfur, magnesium, iodine, fluorine, coal, iron ore, tin, calcium carbonate (sea-shells as raw material for cement), sand, gravel and others.

Whenever someone talks enthusiastically and loosely about feeding the world's starving millions on plankton soup or about mining manganese nodules from the seafloor two to three miles down, the principle of the crossing curves must be kept in mind. There are many things we are doing now or starting to do in the ocean which a few years back would have been derided, but there are some which we will not be doing for some years yet to come. It is simply a matter of elementary economics-the natural relationship of need, technology and capability. And, from an engineering viewpoint, the ocean is the least known and harshest of all our major terrestrial environments.

To understand the political implications of the science and technology of oceanography, it is first necessary to know something of the nature of the ocean itself and its relationship to man and his objectives. For this is not a piece of real estate which belongs to this nation or that, or which has traditionally been subject to a multiplicity of private and sometimes conflicting interests. Indeed, not only is it the common property of all the creatures of this earth, but it also provides the very basis of life as we know it. Thus, in developing the resources of the sea, consideration for the general welfare must be paramount.


Geographically the World Ocean is one. Its waters are in constant and complex motion from the surface to the greatest depths. Its great currents move immense quantities of heat from one part of the world to another; the very fact of the ocean moderates climates from the equator to the poles. Indeed, the ocean is mainly responsible for the comparative gentleness of our terrestrial environment. Topographically, the ocean's basic features are the continental shelves extending nominally to a depth of 600 feet from the shore, the continental slopes which plunge sharply to depths of 8,000 to 12,000 feet, and the abyssal plains, the depth of which ranges generally from 12,000 to 16,000 feet. The deep ocean floor is variously characterized by broad plains, individual seamounts (some higher than Everest), the world's longest and most rugged mountain ranges, and deep trenches, one of which-the Marianas Trench-slices down to seven miles.

Chemically, the ocean contains in solution and/or in suspension virtually every element occurring naturally on earth and-since the proliferation of nuclear tests-several that do not. Some of these occur only in minute amounts. But, since the ocean in toto contains some 317,000,000 cubic miles of water, statistically even trace elements calculate out to vast resources. But theory and practice, though directly related, are often generations apart, and in the proximate future it will be practical to extract only a few of these materials directly from seawater. The normal ocean (if there is such a thing) contains about 34 parts per thousand by weight of dissolved salts. This makes it a fine electrolyte and a highly corrosive fluid, which is one of the main problems the ocean engineer faces. High pressures in the ocean's depths and high mechanical forces from the ocean in motion are others.

While the extraction of mineral wealth-apart from magnesium and a few others-directly from seawater may be slow in developing, exciting mineral resources do exist on and just under the ocean floor. Many of these occur in the relatively shallow waters of the continental shelves which together constitute an area roughly equal to that of Africa, and are well within our present technological reach. There is scarcely a shelf area in the world today that is not now, or soon to be, subject to offshore petroleum exploration. Though less common and less readily exploited, sulfur is also a valuable shelf resource. The newest potential, however, is in the area of "hard minerals"-the ores of the metals and basic chemicals upon which our industries feed and with which we fertilize our fields. Since the shelves are part of the continental structure, they contain ore deposits in forms familiar to us. Also the action of coastwise currents has served, it now is evident, to concentrate extensive alluvial deposits of minerals-both those occurring originally on the shelves and those brought down by continental rivers. These heavy minerals include rutile, ilmenite, cassiterite, scheelite, monozite, zirconium, magnetite, glauconite, tin ores, gold, silver, platinum, diamonds and others. Deep beneath many continental shelves are rich deposits of coal, already mined by the United Kingdom and Japan. Japan is also mining iron-bearing sands from beneath its shelf waters, and diamonds are mined off the coast of South West Africa. Exploration vessels are currently searching for minerals off the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia, New Zealand, Tasmania, Australia and Alaska.

Along the shallow and middle-depth areas of the continental slopes, deposits of phosphorite are often found-in places where it is not readily available ashore. This is an essential fertilizer material and may shortly be extracted from untitled real estate by vessels on the high seas a mile or more above the "mine."

Biologically, the ocean is the most densely populated environment on earth and contains the greatest variety of species. Properly conserved and utilized, the ocean has the potential for closing the gap between foreseeable land-based resources of animal protein and the needs of an exploding world population. Today we catch and eat only a very small proportion of the edible species in the ocean. And, by and large, we still hunt-rather than husband. The sea can be a far greater source of food than it is today, but only if conservation is practiced, and this requires complete international coöperation. The fishing of some species is all too efficient, and there are signs that traditional fishing grounds are being "fished out." In the case of whales-particularly the blue whale, the largest mammal ever to live on earth-there is a real danger that the point of no return may already have been passed, and that some species may be doomed to extinction. (Incidentally, the high population density of the ocean is also the bane of the ocean engineer's existence-for sea creatures will variously eat, nest on, colonize, dissolve and just plain attack any material man places in the ocean.)

The ocean, then, has a potential perhaps without precedent for providing the four basic categories of natural resources upon which the health, wealth and progress of modern man so greatly depend: food, water, energy and mineral resources. The geographical distribution of these resources conforms only in part to the pattern of comparable resources ashore. In some cases-marine life, for example-not only is there no conformity, but the resource is indeed migratory and ranges according to whim, instinct and changing oceanic conditions over many parts of the world. Consider the implications. A valuable species may spawn in one part of the world and graze in another. In both places and in between, it is fished and harvested. If that harvesting at any point is excessive or if the environment at any point is altered adversely, the impact of these acts may be felt thousands of miles away: an act by one nation, even within its own territorial waters, may destroy an asset upon which the very life of another nation depends.

Many "have-not" nations may soon become "have" nations as a result of finding nearby oceanic resources. Australia provides a striking example of just such a prospect. Traditionally a heavy net importer of both raw materials and energy sources, Australia has found oil and gas in her offshore waters. Early results of exploration for hard minerals on her shelf lands show considerable promise. Thus could a largely agrarian economy be transformed into one of vital industrial growth with implications extending far beyond her borders. Also, lower energy costs could speed the day when large-scale desalination plants become economic- when arid Australia becomes lush and verdant.

Australia is only one example of how the utilization of the ocean may redraw the economic map of the world. Since most nations border the sea, the implications of intelligent utilization of the ocean resources are far- reaching and their ramifications complex. The ocean and its incipient new relationship with man and his needs will become an increasingly vital element in international affairs. In some cases it facilitates the attainment of international policy objectives; in that role it is the implement, the tool. In other cases the interaction of man with the sea produces situations that can be resolved only in the international diplomatic arena. In this role the ocean is causative.


There is no scientific or engineering discipline that is not, or will not soon be, applied in the ocean. Already the social and political sciences are becoming involved, and because of the ocean's growing economic and international significance, it presents a challenge such as the law has seldom encountered. It is a whole new world for the insurance underwriter. In fact, there is scarcely a thing we do in our land environment that we will not soon seek to do in the ocean. Already, we hunt on it and in it. We farm it. We mine it. We dump in it. We study it. And, in the case of hurricane control, at least, we may be about to try to change it. Indeed, we are even starting to live in it-initially as scientists and students studying it and as military men preparing to build permanent bases on the ocean floor. Less than a decade away is the resort "aquotel"-an idyllic "bubble on the bottom" resting on white sand midst the ever-changing beauty of some coral reef, a universe away from the harsh cry and stench of the megalopolises that now threaten our coastal areas like some deadly creeping mold. It does not stretch the imagination too far to visualize whole self- contained communities beneath the waters of the world's continental shelves. It has already started with liquid storage. Dry goods warehouses are not far off. The technologies are nearly here; economic justification is slightly more distant.

But man cannot do all of these things without generating conflicts. Sometimes these will be conflicts of interest contained entirely within a single national ecology. As often as not, however, the conflicts are international. Sometimes there is a conflict over whether it is one or the other. Among innumerable examples ranging over many fields, a few-both resolved and unresolved-may serve as illustrations and stimulate further thought.

Last fall a couple of entrepreneurs with more imagination than knowledge of the sea set out to build an artificial island on Cortes Bank-a seamount rising from depths of 10,000 feet to within a few feet of the surface of the Pacific about 110 miles west of San Diego. There were reports that they proposed to declare it a new and independent nation called Abalonia. The would-be island builders now deny this was their intention, but admit they hoped to build a processing plant on their island and harvest the rich crops of abalone and lobster that abound there. Their "island" was to have been a surplus World War II concrete troop carrier, but the sea had other ideas, and before it could be safely grounded in the planned eight feet of water, wind and wave had dragged it to a greater depth where it now resides as a navigation hazard. Charges have been lodged.

Though Cortes Bank is beyond any conceivable three or even twelve mile limit and though geologically it cannot be construed as being part of any continental shelf, several U.S. Federal agencies (mainly the Army Corps of Engineers) claim jurisdiction. They cite the 1958 Geneva Convention on the Territorial Sea & Contiguous Zone and the 1958 Convention on the Continental Shelf, now duly ratified, as their authority. The Shelf Convention concedes a nation sovereignty over the benthic resources (those of the seafloor) of its entire continental shelf, without regard to any territorial sea limitation, to a depth of 600 feet "or beyond that limit to where the depth of the superjacent waters admits to the exploration of the natural resources of said areas." The implication here is, and the intent of the designers of the convention was, that of a continuum-i.e. benthic sovereignty may be exercised over a continuous stretch of seafloor starting with the beach and extending outwards and downwards to whatever depth the nation is able to work its benthic resources. Beyond that point sovereignty ceases, and there is nothing in the convention suggesting that jurisdiction may again be claimed at some point farther out in the ocean where it is once again shallow, as with the case of Cortes Bank.

This may seem like a fine point of law, but it is far from that. The Geneva Convention was concerned mainly with such things as lobster fishing and offshore oil exploration at a time when people still thought that everything man would do of this nature he would do mainly from the surface of the sea, and before there was such an "ocean-awareness" as there is now. The Geneva Convention is not sufficient to the times, and one or several more comprehensive conventions will have to be designed, negotiated and ratified before many more years pass.

There are several current cases in point. One is the North Sea, which is almost entirely continental shelf by the simple 600-foot definition. The exception is a deep trench bordering the southern tip of Norway. Legally this should have cut Norway off from participating in the North Sea petroleum development, but by the willingness of the other riparian states simply to ignore this trench, Norway got its share of the pie.

Not so simple, nor so pressing as yet, are the seamounts which in many places far from any sovereign shore rise to within a few feet of the ocean's surface. By any available legal definition the waters over these seamounts are "high seas," where freedom reigns, and their summits are indeed unclaimed territory. Our advancing ocean technology is already sufficient to enable anyone to establish high-and-dry platforms-even islands of rock and earth-in these shallows. As the case of Cortes Bank suggests, the builder could claim sovereign rights and establish a new nation, laying claim as well to the seafloor "to a depth of 200 meters or beyond that limit to where . . ." and so forth, according to the Geneva Convention.

Regardless of the frightening and perhaps not entirely realistic prospect of a proliferation of new and tiny nations all begging United Nations membership and perhaps deftly playing off East against West for profit and plenty, these seamounts present some real and present problems. Vema Seamount off the coast of South West Africa was discovered a few years ago by the U. S. Research Vessel, Vema. Its top covers a considerable area and comes to within a few feet of the surface. Originally its summit abounded with South African lobsters and other marketable sealife, but commercial fishermen quickly fished it out. Now they are busily seeking other seamounts. There are reports that some of them have been successful and are keeping the location strictly to themselves. It isn't hard to visualize a small shooting war developing among fishermen poaching on one another's private finds-all this on the "high seas" whose freedom is traditional, and over territory for which no body of international law exists.

This is the nub of the problem. As long as the high seas were used mainly as a fishing ground and primarily as a means of transport, and by fishermen whose range was relatively limited and whose catch was individually small, complex problems did not arise. There was little conflict of interest; in fact, there were no vested interests at all. But now a whole spectrum of overlapping interests is about to be imposed on the World Ocean, and it may be that they can be properly served only by granting rights and title to specific areas of seafloor or volumes of sea-space itself. In any event, the interested parties must have some kind of legal recourse, and the interests of the many must be protected from the depredations of the few.

Interests will often be in direct conflict. This can be seen already in the continental shelf areas where transoceanic telephone cables often encounter the trawls and nets of fishermen, with the subsequent loss of either or both. One sees it, too, in the rising incursion of foreign fishing fleets in waters that have traditionally supported populations of the contiguous landmass. Or again, the saltwater marshlands that line the coasts of much of the world are the maternity wards and nurseries of many species of fishes, including many of high commercial value. These species spawn and/or migrate into the marsh creeks to mature and then return to the sea. Yet the human predation of these marshes is proceeding at a frightening pace. Every year thousands of acres fall prey to the tailings of the channel dredge, the fill of the super coastal highway and the deadliest pollutant of all, the suburban development. An effort is now being made in the United States to give this resource some kind of survival priority. However, a good argument can be made that these marshlands are worldwide resources and should be subject to international protection. Regardless of the principle of sovereign lands and territorial waters, the marshlands are a key element of a safe and productive ocean.

Similar arguments can be made with respect to the age-old habit of using the ocean as a bottomless sink for sewage and waste; the damage that ocean miners may do to other benthic resources; the attempt, which is bound to come, to alter climate by diverting ocean currents; and the mounting conflict among the burgeoning commercial fisheries.

It is said that the international agreements relating to Antarctica and outer space provide precedents for establishing similar agreements with respect to the ocean. This is not entirely true; for, short of gaining scientific knowledge, we cannot see at present what can be done with outer space or with Antarctica that is productive. Conflicts of interest in the ocean have already manifested themselves in direct confrontations, though for the most part these have been resolved around the conference table by regional agreements. But the time is fast running out when this kind of "each case on its own merits" solution will serve, for soon solutions will conflict with solutions. Unlike Antarctica and outer space, the ocean is an intimate, human environment. Anyone can go down into the deep ocean, either to satisfy his curiosity or to do useful, productive work. Just as surely as the pioneers a century ago opened up the great American West, so man will open up the World Ocean to all of his dreams, exploits and endeavors. Whether this exploration and exploitation is orderly or chaotic, whether we manage to wrest the needed riches from the sea and still leave its bounty for generations to come, depends in large measure on the acumen, foresight and dedication of what we do today.


One of the most obvious and traditional uses of the ocean is as a road to conquest and a buffer for defense. Today the submarine-launched ballistic missile is the most secure, perhaps the most deadly weapon in the world. The ocean highways are still man's primary means of transport between continents, and to keep them open for national use is a primary naval mission. A strong merchant marine continues to be a criterion of national power, and showing the flag in foreign ports is an old and still-valid instrument of foreign policy.

But now the ocean takes on new dimensions as an implement of foreign policy. Starvation and malnutrition are spectres that cast a shadow over the world's efforts to attain a lasting peace. The land fails to meet food needs today, and even the most conservative estimates of the population growth in the years just ahead spell catastrophe unless alternative sources are found. The ocean is just such a potential source if properly administered, properly conserved and properly husbanded.

The idea-at least in the minds of American policy-makers-is not merely that the food resources of the sea should be provided to the less developed and, for the most part, most populated nations, but rather that these nations should be given the technical ability to exploit this source of nutrition for themselves. Hence, the Agency for International Development is heavily engaged. The proper exploitation of fishery resources requires both a knowledge of the ocean and the creatures that can be harvested and a sound and growing capability in the design, construction and use of the equipment required for their exploitation. Thus, the ocean serves our national interest both in providing a source of food for the less developed nations and in building up their ability not only to feed themselves but to increase their technological competence.

As a bridge for friendly contact and common purpose between East and West, oceanography has proved highly successful-despite occasional ineptness by the State Department and retaliation in kind by the Soviet Union. There is something about the ocean-it is massive, infinitely complex, powerful and impersonal-that seems to transcend specific national interests and temporal political considerations. As in other fields of international science, those who study the sea get along rather well, and international oceanographic expeditions are planned and participated in with little regard for ideological considerations. For example, scientists from 46 nations-East and West-participated in the recent Indian Ocean Expedition.

Such expeditions can be used effectively to promote regional cohesiveness and coöperation, especially among groups of less developed nations. In many cases oceanographic efforts sufficient to produce useful results exceed the capabilities of small nations to carry them out by themselves. Therefore it is only logical that they join forces to achieve a common objective. If this also serves the purpose of encouraging nations to work together or tends to formalize an obviously advantageous regional grouping, so much the better. The nations that ring the Pacific, for example, cooperate not only in scientific research, but also to protect themselves against the ravages of tidal waves and to conserve the Pacific fisheries. In some cases there have even been reasonably successful efforts to settle conflicts-as between high seas fishermen trawling for pelagic (free swimming) species and those using sea-bottom traps to catch Alaska king crabs. Less successful has been the International Whaling Commission, whose minutes read well but whose enforcement procedures leave much to be desired.

There are now at least half a hundred international bodies concerned with one or another aspect of oceanography, many of them under the auspices of the United Nations. In the end we will have to have a global administration of the World Ocean-an administration of laws and procedures and perhaps, even, of enforcement capabilities. Meanwhile, we are beginning to use the ocean in ways never heretofore anticipated and in ways which will increasingly impinge on the conduct of international affairs. What we do will determine whether the ocean draws nations together or expands the area of their conflicts. And everything we do with the ocean for our benefit will be to no avail if in the process we destroy it.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now