On the threshold of the twenty-first century it is evident that the pattern of ocean use as compared to that at the time of Hugo Grotius has changed radically both qualitatively and quantitatively. Spurred by the demands of a much larger world population and a technological capability that Grotius could not have even imagined, ocean uses have intensified and become more varied. Once perceived as inexhaustible, fisheries in a growing number of regions have been exploited to a level of commercial exhaustion and human impacts on the physical environment in coastal areas have further threatened the sustainability of living resources. The interaction of traditional uses such as fishing and new uses such as oil exploitation have raised the specter of use conflicts. Though once seemingly boundless, the oceans are increasingly being seen as systems with limits. They cannot simultaneously afford the opportunity for everyone to do as he wishes, without regard for the actions of anyone else and without the growing risk of mutual interference, and the destruction of natural systems and the resources those systems support.
It has become clear in this context that choices and priorities have to be made because of the now widespread recognition that some resources, such as desired species of fish, are finite in quantity and that current actions may foreclose both present and future options. The need for resource and environmental management within states is generally understood and institutional machinery in the form of national governments has the authority to make needed choices and decisions. While there is no guarantee that such actions are wise or effective, a recognized mechanism with the capacity to make decisions and to enforce them is in place.
Since the time of Grotius, however, the world’s oceans, with very limited exception, have been treated as a commons and thus were immune to the exclusive legal authority of any single state. In a world with a relatively small population and, by today’s standards, rudimentary technological capabilities, such a situation, in general, might be functional. In such a context, the concept of freedom of the seas still might be tenable. But, as the human capability to exploit resources grew enormously, and as the ability to affect natural systems