By Dr. Greg Stone and Dr. T. Suka Mangisi

Scientists believe life began in the ocean. It now acts as the bloodstream for the planet; global flows of saltwater moving in currents — north and south, cold and warm — mixing nutrients and turning the sun’s energy into food while ensuring our climate remains hospitable to all life. There is evidence that Homo sapiens may have lived a coastal life in places like Mossel Bay, South Africa for over 100,000 years, getting a steady supply of brain-enhancing proteins, safety from land predators, and perhaps a coastal highway for our ultimate migration out of Africa.

On the eve of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, it is fitting to celebrate not only the central importance of the ocean to all humanity, but also the rise of “Giant Ocean States,” countries composed mostly of ocean, and which lay claim as traditional custodians and holders of traditional knowledge of the vast expanse for economic, social, and environmental livelihood.

Having occupied and used all the land on earth, humanity must turn its attention back to the ocean and carefully orient much of our future opportunity there. This profound paradigm shift means that stewardship and ownership of the ocean is more important now than in all human history. 

Throughout much of our civilization, the ocean is where humanity has taken too much of what it wanted, and threw away much of what it didn’t. Most wild fish stocks are depleted, and there may be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.

Yet, we remain a century behind in our exploitation of the ocean when compared to the same on land. Many fear our mistakes on land will be repeated underwater. But we believe that an opportunity exists to take the lessons learned from terrestrial exploitation and get it right as we increasingly look to the massive oceanic resource to usher in the so-called fourth industrial revolution.

Humanity’s fate is inextricably tied to the oceans, and now “small” countries that control vast regions of the sea — which have historically had less influence on the world stage — are waking up to their power.   

Countries like Antigua and Barbuda, Fiji, Kiribati, Jamaica, Nauru, and Tuvalu, are known for their turquoise waters, white sands, and vibrant coral reefs. For their citizens, however, life can be far from picture-perfect.

Thirty-eight countries were formally recognized as Small Island Developing States, or SIDS, in 1992 by the United Nations because they share similar challenges, including limited resources, remoteness, susceptibility to natural disasters, excessive dependence on international trade and aid, and fragile environments.

To combat economic disparities between richer and poorer nations and to better protect our oceans from exploitation, the global community developed the most important international agreement yet, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. This agreement oversaw an enormous expansion of national sovereignty through the creation of oceanic exclusive economic zones, commonly referred to as EEZs, allowing countries to claim territorial rights for fishing, shipping, pollution and mineral activities within their allocated zones.

Thanks to this “constitution of the ocean”, small islands hit the jackpot. UNCLOS dictates that all coastal states own the ocean area stretching 200 miles out to sea from any point of land visible at low tide. But island states are now able to extend their borders in every direction, generating enormous new territory, even if they are small. For example, the Republic of Kiribati has 33 islands with a total land area of 810 km2, but its new EEZ increased its sovereign territory by 4,320%, to over 3.5 million km2 — a large planetary footprint.

Approximately 61% of the ocean remains outside individual country zones. Referred to as the “high seas”, this area belongs to everyone on Earth. To ensure this concept’s legal recognition, UNCLOS adopted the “Common Heritage of Mankind,” as a practical organizing principle. Since the ocean is home to valuable critical minerals, this wealth belongs to everyone. This innovative way of thinking is designed to share the economic value generated in this area with all humankind, especially with the Global South.

This principle has long been known; only now does it have real implications. The offshore recovery of ocean minerals is now technologically feasible, and the demand for these minerals — according to the World Bank — is set to increase by 500% by 2050 as the world transitions away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy and electric transport.

Sourcing these minerals on land is highly destructive and has left legacies of environmental degradation and habitat loss in many Pacific communities – to say nothing of the incidence of child labour in wider mineral supply chains. Furthermore, the impact of falling ore grades cannot be ignored, leaving us to dig deeper for lower-quality minerals. Sitting unattached on the deep-ocean floor, polymetallic nodules offer a lower-impact alternative which ocean-faring nations are best placed to carefully develop.

For the first time in history, a major extractive industry can be planned for sustainability, and profits shared equitably on principle — not according to political power or capital.

As we look to the future, and orient ourselves more towards the ocean, those countries most in need of basic opportunity will have a better chance through the rise of Giant Ocean States and the implementation of the Common Heritage principle.

As a result of the pandemic and the subsequent slower pace of negotiations in a virtual environment, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) and its member states will likely finalize its mining code in 2021. No extraction can proceed until this has been codified, and after states’ Environmental Impact Statements, which are the result of three years of rigorous research and mandatory for the conferral of a mining license, have been approved. Each application will be weighed on merit and if activities are deemed likely to cause “serious harm”, no mining will take place. All things considered, the earliest realistic date that nodule collection may begin is 2023.

Once agreed, this would represent the first extractive industry overseen by the UN and lead to the creation of a monetary fund to be shared by over 100 low- and middle-income countries. Given that this represents their only likely industrialization opportunity for the foreseeable future, Pacific states are very active participants in this process, and are committed to getting it right and to ensuring that past legacies of mining on land are not repeated.

For small island developing states, the responsible development of their marine resources presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to diversify economies, making a self-determined development path possible. As the impacts of climate change deepen, this is now inevitable. It falls to us to ensure that it proceeds in the most equitable and sustainable way possible, so that the benefits of our common heritage accrue to all citizens for generations to come.

Dr. Greg Stone is Chief Ocean Scientist of DeepGreen Metals and former Chief Ocean Scientist for Conservation International. He is the co-author of ‘Soul of the Sea in the Age of the Algorithm. 

Dr. T. Suka Mangisi is Chief of Mission at the Embassy of the Kingdom of Tonga in Tokyo and a former Deputy Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and Deputy Permanent Representative of the Kingdom of Tonga to the United Nations. He has led the delegation of the Kingdom of Tonga to the annual sessions of the International Seabed Authority. Views expressed here are his and not necessarily those of the Government of the Kingdom of Tonga.

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