Thinking about Ownership of the Sea

February 8, 2018

Stephanie Weir

The notion of property has had many accolades assigned to it. In some iterations, it is the bringer of freedom (Anderson and Huggins 2003); in others it is a wielder of power (Underkuffler 2003). It is also a way of distinction between culture and nature, boiled down to the ownable and unownable. Land, a cultural prism, has long been an easily divisible and ownable space, whereas the sea, in its distant bubble of “hypernature,” has never been for individual ownership (Helmreich 2011; Jackson 1995). (I speak here of course for our modern Western society; individuals and communities have apportioned and “owned” coastal areas in numerous cultures across centuries [see, e.g., Mulrennan and Scott 2000]).

But the sea is undergoing a social, political, and ideological reconstruction. In an environment that was effectively free from comprehensive governance for centuries, there are now the beginnings of a more effective system, using terrestrial techniques like planning to provide a holistic framework of governance. And much of that framework is looking to property rights as a way of balancing the competing interests of economic development and environmental protection. The question is, how do we as a society accept the concept that our marine environment, for so long an open, “free” space, could be owned by someone or something?

It is a question I asked myself after a discussion with a friend of mine on the topic of my PhD dissertation. When I explained my thesis, she expressed first surprise then outrage at the thought that anyone could own the sea. Her reaction is an exemplification of a common view of the sea as a space free from economic and politics. It is a view predicated on this consistent division of land and sea, of culture and nature. It’s a romanticized view that was codified with writings like Mare Liberum (“The Free Sea,” written by Grotius in 1609). And it is a view that has long sat at a curious and uneasy interface with the directly opposing argument of sovereign control over potentially highly valuable marine resources.


Sunset over the sea in Scotland; could public-private partnerships help protect this environment? (© Stephanie Weir, 2015).

It is at this juncture that modern ocean governance has sat for a long time, somewhere between a free-for-all and a battleground for territory, but nevertheless an abstracted, temporary space free of humans and permanent occupation. And before progress is made, we must universally recognize that this is not the case, and hasn’t been for a long time. The sea is a lived space where individuals and corporations and states continually operate, moving and living and occupying, withdrawing and economizing on space and resources. The ocean is a natureculture (Haraway 2003)—a knotting of the natural world and a commodified space, on which a vast proportion of the world relies. Viewed as such, is it really so different to the land, a commodity that has undergone centuries of enclosure?

But I think the real answer to how we overcome an admittedly uncomfortable realization that the sea could be owned, is that simply, we must. The world is warming, the oceans are rising, and the global population is rocketing. There is too much irreversible damage, and too much at stake on land, to contemplate an alternative to sustainable expansion into the oceans. And this is being recognized by numerous stakeholder groups. The World Bank’s Global Partnership for Oceans recently advocated for partial privatisation of coastal areas via public-private partnerships in a move to sustainably exploit marine resources (Hoegh-Guldberg et al. 2013).

My research presents the modes of governance that are already utilizing property rights in effective ways to manage and monitor marine resources. One half of the research focuses on the actions of marine planning in aiding the enclosure of sea areas via certain spatially distributed stakeholders, like marine renewables, aquaculture, and conservation. The act of spatial enclosure is again not a novel approach to marine management; spatially determined zoning, in regimes akin to Western ideas of property, has been used by indigenous communities for efficient exploitation (Mulrennan and Scott 2000).

Building frameworks of ownership does not necessarily mean the selling of sea areas to individuals. Although private property has for a long time been promoted as the “final” product or ultimate goal of the linear transition of property, there have been those that dispute its efficiency, instead arguing for the legitimacy of communal property and collective resource management. Communities have shown time and time again that they can work collaboratively to more efficiently manage their resources; just look at the fantastic examples in Nartional Research Council (2002). Or take Scotland; following widespread land reform after centuries of inequity, the country’s community land ownership incentive has seen dozens of communities take charge of their islands or surrounding regions, to manage as they please. Why can’t the same be done for our oceans?

Of course, there is much to address before ownership of marine space becomes a part of a sustainable future. Let’s not pretend that privatization of the oceans is the perfect panacea for all that is wrong with the current system of maritime management. A crucial part of my research focuses on the concept of social equity. Past examples of intense economic growth shows that it inevitably results in some participants winning, and others losing, with property rights only furthering the disenfranchisement of the already vulnerable (Ensminger and Rutten 1991). While the social world could not easily be described as “fair,” objectives for sustainability sit in “seamless harmony” with objectives for social justice (Dobson 1999). Embracing equitable distribution of rights, and subsequently power, should help minimize the gap between these winners and losers, and consequently optimize efficiency in the governance system. Acceptance of changes to control over lived spaces is usually more readily found when the enclosure process is one of collaboration and participation with local stakeholders and communities; this has been found in examples of renewables (Bell et al. 2005) and marine planning (Flannery and Ó Cinnéide 2012).

Much like in the terrestrial world, property rights cannot in themselves solve the complex intricacies of environmental issues, but they could go some way to answering what exactly we can do to help protect our future, and the world’s future.

Stephanie Weir
is a PhD candidate at Heriot-Watt University, researching at the International Centre for Island Technology in Orkney, Scotland. Her current research examines the trends and perceptions of enclosure and privatization in Scottish seas, focusing on attitudes of stakeholders to changing rights and the notion of “fairness.” Her most recent publication can be found here. Follow her on Twitter at @phd_steph17.


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Flannery, Wesley, and Micheál Ó Cinnéide. 2012. “Deriving Lessons Relating to Marine Spatial Planning from Canada’s Eastern Scotian Shelf Integrated Management Initiative.” Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning 14 (1): 97–117.

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Mulrennan, Monica, and Colin Scott. 2000. “Mare Nullius: Indigenous Rights in Saltwater Environments.” Development and Change 31 (3): 681–708.

National Research Council. 2002 The Drama of the Commons. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Underkuffler, Laura S. 2003. The Idea of Property: Its Meaning and Power. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Cite as: 
Weir, Stephanie. 2018. “Thinking about Ownership of the Sea.” EnviroSociety, 8 February.

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