The New Law of the Sea

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, July 1995 | Go to article overview

The New Law of the Sea


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


The new law of the sea came into effect on 16 November 1994. It is one of the most ambitious treaties in the history of the United Nations. The sea is too easily taken for granted. All the world's population - including people living a long way from the coast - depend upon the sea. The sea is the source of all life. Out of it stumbled the forebears of mankind; from it mankind draws living resources for food. It is the key factor in maintaining the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance in the atmosphere. It maintains the stability of the earth's climate. It provides a medium for transport between continents. It is a source of recreation and holidays.

The sea is also the last legal frontier. Humanity continues to do to the sea what it is now outlawing on land: using the sea as a refuse tip for non-biodegradable substances, for old chemical weaponry and radioactive material, and as a depository for fertilizers washed off the land. Unlike the rivers, which wash pollutants to the sea, the sea has no outlets. In short: the muck stops here.

The sea was, for thousands of years, traditionally viewed as: inexhaustible (no matter how many fish or whales were taken from the sea, there were always more left); indestructible (the sea could always absorb the garbage of mankind); limitless (a person could sail for years without necessarily retracing his route). That view is changing. The sea is not inexhaustible. Some whales have been hunted to extinction and others have almost disappeared. The major whaling countries (notably Norway and Japan) now wish to end the global moratorium on whaling and resume their hunting.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has warned that the demand for fish is outstripping the natural replenishment of fish resources. Total fish production rose from 70 million tons in 1979 to 100 million tons in 1990. But it is unlikely to grow at the same rate because industrial pollution and urban growth are damaging fish breeding stocks, and some fish stock is being over-exploited, that is catching young fish before they have had the chance to breed. This shortage of fish led to tensions between Canada and Spain in early 1995.

Our view of the sea as indestructible is also changing. The most dramatic example of this is the 'death of the Aral Sea', which straddles the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia. Water was siphoned off the Aral Basin to help agriculture and cotton growing. (Ironically, 40 per cent of the water that was siphoned off was lost through leakage because the canals were not lined.) The Aral Sea used to be the world's fourth largest inland sea. In 1961, it had a thriving fishing industry. It has since lost 69 per cent of its water and the agricultural chemicals and increased salinity have killed all the fish. It is a maritime version of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. There is a fundamental unity in the composition of the seas: pollution which goes into the sea tends to stay there. There is little else where it can go. There is considerable mass media attention to maritime disasters involving oil tankers. In fact, 90 per cent of the pollution in the sea comes from the land, such as rubbish and agricultural fertilizers. A person who lives well inland may still be contributing to the sea's destruction.

Finally, there is our view of the sea as being limitless. This view, also, is changing. The sea covers 70 per cent of the globe's surface but, compared with the diameter of the planet, the sea is shallow. If the planet were reduced to the size of an egg, the total amount of water would be the size of a tear drop. This new perception of the shallowness of the sea is being enhanced by the discoveries of what is on the seabed. It was assumed that the seabed was barren - after the first few hundred yards there is no sunlight and the water pressure at the seabed would crush land-based animals. In fact, discoveries in the last decade or so have shown that there is a new world in some parts of the seabed, teeming with life and presenting fresh challenges to scientists. …

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