jellyfish in the ocean

This World Ocean Day, let’s change how we relate to the ocean

8 June 2023
A new project captures understandings about how the ocean relates to the global north and south, and raises questions of social justice, relations with marine others, environments, food sovereignty, and more-than-human dignity.

By Dr Susan Reid and Professor Elspeth Probyn, two members of the team behind Extracting the Ocean

World Ocean Day brings an inundation of ocean wow-facting – how little we know of them, how much of the planet’s surface they cover, how much oxygen they generate, how many people they feed or how much biodiversity they host. The internet abounds with such listicles. 

It is, to use an apt Australian term, a complete furphy, to contend that we do not know the ocean. Recognising the diverse ways that the ocean is known goes some way to understanding the complex relational dimensions. The worldviews of different First Nations coastal people around the world don’t “know” the ocean and its environments; they live with them as an integrated way of life. 

Unfortunately, extractive imaginaries, economics, and the legacies of colonial conquest still dominate how the ocean is known and related to. These legacies, and an extractive development agenda, stream deep into international governance bodies and legal frameworks such as the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction treaty.

Guided by extractive ways of knowing the ocean, bodies such as the International Seabed Authority (ISA) are mandated by UNCLOS to manage deep seabed mining within the international seabed area. For International Biodiversity Day, the ISA recently tweeted its celebration of deep ocean biodiversity. Did someone say blue wash?

World Ocean Day is the sixteenth iteration of the UN’s observance day for the ocean. With origins in the UN Conference on Sustainable Development or Rio+20, it is no surprise that the event hinges to the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDG). The principal goal for the ocean is SDG 14  Life Below Water, which aims to "[c]onserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” To achieve this, SDG 14 seeks to stop certain human activities: (marine pollution, acidification, overfishing, impacts from marine plastic pollution) and enable others (sustainable fishing, conserving coastal and marine areas, better ocean law).

One could argue that World Ocean Day raises public awareness of the importance of the ocean to all our lives and highlights critical issues affecting marine environments. The charge of blue washing to ensure ongoing ocean exploitations would not be off target either. Conditions in the ocean have deteriorated under the UN’s watch and certainly since World Ocean Day was first launched, as the UN itself has extensively reported in its World Ocean Assessment and IPCC Special Report.

As with the SDG goals, the concept of a World Ocean Day first emerged at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, a decade after the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was adopted in 1982 (in force 1994). It was a response to growing concerns about the state of the ocean and the need to build ocean literacy. That these concerns emerged 10 years after the UNCLOS came into force can partly be attributed to the nascency of marine scientific knowledges during preceding decades. When final negotiations toward UNCLOS began in 1973–little was understood of either marine ecological relations or the impacts of human activities and wastes. As oceanography and marine technologies advanced these impacts became clearer. Nevertheless, though World Ocean Day and SDG 14 reflect growing concern about the ocean’s conditions they also represent a commitment to keep exploiting them ‘sustainably.’

UNCLOS provides the legal framework governing (or one might argue, facilitating) ocean exploitation, over most of the earth’s biosphere. Such is the comprehensive nature and jurisdictional reach of the convention that Tommy T.B. Koh, then President of the UN’s Third Conference on the Law of the Sea, (which finalised UNCLOS), described it as “A Constitution for the Oceans”.

As the overarching legal framework governing human uses of the ocean, the convention reflects shifting terrains of post WWII and Cold War geopolitics, and the emergence of new nations from colonial rule. There was also increasing awareness of ocean resources, thanks to the developing fields of marine science. UNCLOS offered legitimacy and legal assurances for companies keen to exploit those resources. Despite Part XII of the convention and other environmental provisions, the convention’s marine protections are generally weak and difficult to enforce. By some accounts, UNCLOS is in fact a constitution for the ocean, without the ocean. 

More recently, a new treaty for the high seas has been finalised, known as the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction treaty (BBNJ). The high seas comprise the water column in the international area beyond national jurisdiction – almost two thirds of the ocean. To date, UNCLOS has upheld a long-standing free seas doctrine, which facilitates unregulated exploitation in the high seas. The BBNJ treaty does not extinguish that doctrine but it does provide the basis for expanding marine park protections in the high seas. For this the BBNJ ought to be rightly cheered. However, the new treaty also functions as a legal framework for the exploitation of marine genetic resources. One could then also argue that the BBNJ is yet another regulatory measure that enables corporations to exploit a new ocean resource. 

Our project, Extracting the Ocean explores deep seabed mining, overfishing, squid fishing, ice and oil, and the fictions and imaginaries washing between. We seek to get into and under different ways of knowing these very disparate events and processes to interrogate the complex and often turbulent implications of their epistemologies, more-than-human marine relations and impacts, ethical dimensions, and geopolitics. To use an earth-bound term, our methodology is a rhizomatic gathering of what is going on. 

Our mission is to catch fleeting incidents that are of long durée, where the past, present and future collide. We proceed by gathering and curating narrative- and image-led short pieces, which we call eddies – a swirling motion in the ocean that brings colder, deeper waters to the surface – and scales that are so at odds with each other that no linear understanding is possible.

Our hope is that along with collaborators around the world we can build a living, moving research protocol that seeks not to know but to capture connections and upwell new understandings about how the ocean connects and disconnects the global north and south, questions of social justice, relations with more-than-human marine others, environments, food sovereignty, and more-than-human dignity.

Dr Susan Reid is a cultural theorist, creative researcher, writer, and lawyer interested in multibeing ontologies and ocean justice. Susan is collaborating with Prof. Elspeth Probyn on the project, Extracting the Ocean. She was awarded a PhD from the University of Sydney for her thesis "Imagining Justice with the Ocean", which examines ocean epistemologies, legal frameworks, and multibeing relations in the context of extractive, oceanic frontiers. Susan is also a lawyer, admitted to the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory; with an LLM (International Law) from the Australian National University, and an MA (Design) from the University of Technology. Publications include “Ocean Justice: Reckoning with Material Vulnerability”;  “Imagining Justice with the Abyssal Ocean”; “Taking Code to Sea”; “Solwara 1 and the Sessile Ones”; “Transitioning Currents in Times of Climate Change”; and Feminist, Queer, Anticolonial Propositions for Hacking the Anthropocene: Archive

Elspeth Probyn is Professor of Gender & Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. She has published several monographs including Sexing the Self (Routledge, 1993), Outside Belongings (Routledge, 1996), Carnal Appetites (Routledge, 2000), Blush: Faces of Shame(Minnesota, 2006), and Eating the Ocean (Duke, 2016), and co-editor of Sustaining Seas (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021). Her most recent publication is "Aqua/geopolitical conjuncture and disjuncture: invasion, resources, and mining the deep dark sea," Cultural Studies (2023): 1-22. Her current project funded by the ARC, Extracting the Ocean, is focused on forms of oceanic marine extraction (from fishing to mining and bioprospecting).

Header image: Photo by Erastus McCart on Unsplash

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