Introduction The Future of Ocean Governance and Capacity Development

In: The Future of Ocean Governance and Capacity Development
Open Access

We live by a global ocean that washes on many shores, supports the activities of many different peoples, and exacts our respect in many forms. At the height of her career Elisabeth Mann Borgese advocated that this ocean is our common heritage. She worked to promote a sharing of skills and knowledge to enable people of all countries to benefit more equally from its bounty. The knowledge and facilities have spread, but so too has a recognition of the critical state of ocean conditions and of unmet challenges to ocean and coastal governance. This book is about the evolution of our understanding of both the conditions and the challenges.

Ocean governance and training are deeply rooted in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),1 the 1982 international agreement often described as the “constitution of the oceans.” As an active participant in the process of negotiation and ratification of the Convention, Professor Mann Borgese was determined that it incorporated the principle of equity among nations. More than that, she insisted that it must provide for training to enable small, developing and poor countries to implement the agreement for their own benefit. As she wrote later about the creation of exclusive economic zones (EEZs) under the Convention: “The acquisition of vast areas of ocean space and resources by itself meant nothing if coastal states lacked the resources needed for rational management.”2

The foundation of the International Ocean Institute (IOI) in 1972 was a response to this need. During her tenure in the 1980s at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, Professor Mann Borgese led the development and implementation of the IOI-Canada Training Program. Now well into its fourth decade, the annual program brings participants from around the world to meet at Dalhousie University with experienced academics, practitioners, and administrators for lectures and discussion on current aspects of ocean and coastal governance. More than 700 mid-level professionals from more than 100 countries have taken part.

This compendium of over eighty essays is an outgrowth of IOI-Canada’s flagship training course on ocean governance. It does not offer an in-depth review of any single aspect of ocean governance, but the diversity of themes and topics reflects the wide scope of IOI’s training initiatives. Despite their brevity, most of the essays share a common denominator and analytical quality: consideration of the current state of ocean governance-related affairs and a critical look at the challenges and prospects ahead. The latter aspect is the subject of our essay at the end of the book looking at a number of significant crosscutting issues that emerge through this process. They include concerns about institutional arrangements and co-operation, environmental problems and pressures, technological advancements, challenges and opportunities, and matters concerning civil society.

As this collection attests, ocean governance spans an extraordinary range of issues and disciplines.3 Its remit extends from matters as local as who gets to put a lobster pot where, to international disputes over control of ocean space. It relies on both formal and informal structures and fact-based evidence supported by science to maintain the health of the ocean and the well-being of coastal peoples. UNCLOS provided a framework of laws, institutions, and practices within which states might co-operate in the management of many different activities in, on and about the ocean and the sharing of its resources. An array of international agencies now exists to regulate everything from international maritime transport to tuna fisheries.

An emerging ethos of ocean governance found expression at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. Agenda 21 declared that “the marine environment—including the oceans and all seas and adjacent coastal areas—forms an integrated whole that is an essential component of the global life-support system and a positive asset that presents opportunities for sustainable development.”4

Chapter 17 of Agenda 21 called for new approaches to marine and coastal area management and development. It urged States to undertake integrated management and sustainable development of coastal areas and to apply preventive and precautionary approaches in project planning and implementation. Coastal States should increase consultation with academic and private sectors, community and resource groups, and indigenous people. The capacity of developing countries to act on the recommendations ultimately would depend “on the technology transfer and financial resources required and made available to them.”5

Equity and sustainability remain as core principles but, in this century, issues of ocean governance often concern shared exigencies. Climate change, population pressures, economic globalization, and unsustainable exploitation of marine resources challenge our ability to co-operate nationally, regionally, and internationally. The scale of these challenges is as vast as the ocean itself, but at least two considerations complicate our response to them all. None are resolvable by nations acting alone because so much of the ocean is beyond the legal jurisdiction of any one of them. Neither can any one branch of scientific inquiry or technology provide solutions. Only through interdisciplinary exchange can we hope to comprehend the complex relationships the ocean represents. Only through negotiation and compromise among nations can there be a possibility of effective action.

Such would have been the perceptions motivating the generation that produced UNCLOS and Agenda 21. Who could question that fish ignore maritime boundaries, urban sewage and agricultural runoff degrade coastal waters, or ballast water from bulk carriers is a source of invasive species. What may have been more difficult to foresee was the rapidity of the escalation of threats to ocean health. Late in the last century, for example, the consequences of climate change to the ocean received much less media attention than worry about the ozone layer. The plastic bags that now clog mid-ocean gyres only started to appear at grocery checkouts around 1980.6 Meanwhile, the trends in such long-recognized indicators as levels of acidification, eutrophication of coastal waters, and fishery stocks have grown more ominous.

What also could not have been fully anticipated was the impact of digitized communication systems that made possible not only the Internet and social media, but also the accumulation and instant transmission of great volumes of data about the ocean environment, circulation patterns, and the movement of vessels. Shared with skilled associates, such data can enhance the capacity of developing states to manage ocean activity and resources; withheld, existing disparities can only deepen. Similarly, the spread of the Internet led to the so-called digital divide between those with easy online access and those with limited or none. Yet the web serves as a virtual classroom for individuals seeking up-to-date credentials in science and technology and enables the exchange of significant findings between colleagues on opposite sides of the world. The intensity of current debates over cybersecurity and Internet governance is a good measure of its importance for the future of ocean governance.7

The hyper-charged pace of change in the early years of this century has had unequal consequences for people in developed and developing states. Whole communities in the South Pacific are looking afar for new islands to which they might move, and in the developed world rising flood insurance premiums are a concern for people along North American coastlines. Spreading drought brings bans on water-sprinklers in upscale communities in some countries, while for subsistence farmers it means desperation and mass migration. Just as unequal can be the distribution of benefits from advances in research, knowledge, and technological change. The cost of maintaining a large scientific establishment and acquiring the technology it demands is well beyond the financial capacity of most developing States. The knowledge base from which developed nations around the North Atlantic manage fisheries, maritime transport, and weather forecasting and so on, is vastly more detailed than that for developing States globally.

For Professor Mann Borgese, the gap in knowledge and capacity between developed and developing states reflected a power relationship in which the well-to-do will always advance faster and further than those with less. This was for her, and is for a large part of the world, no longer acceptable. What is also now more apparent than ever is that—like weak links in a chain—gaps in overall ocean governance expose all of us to the consequences of a breakdown in the sustainability of ocean ecosystems. This possibility weighs heavily on a generation of young people around the world in an era where human activity has a decisive impact on the environment. The foresight and commitment of Elisabeth Mann Borgese speaks to this generation as surely as at any time during her life. We have only one ocean to care for, she reminded us, and it is a responsibility and an interest we share with people on all its shores.


Montego Bay, 10 December 1982, 1833 U.N.T.S. 3. Available at


E. Mann Borgese, “The Training Programme of the International Ocean Institute,” Ocean & Coastal Management 40, no. 1 (1998): 93–97, 93.


Although there is no general and widely accepted definition of ocean governance we can point to specific legal, institutional and implementation-related elements that, when combined in a holistic and inclusive way, form the basis for effective ocean governance regimes at local, regional, national and international levels, with the ultimate aim to sustain the health of the ocean and the well-being of humankind.


Supra 4.


S. Laskow, “How the Plastic Bag Became so Popular,” The Atlantic, 10 October 2014,


“Debates on Global Governance and Cybersecurity,” Internet Governance Project, Georgia Tech, School of Public Policy, 3 April 2017,