The high seas and the deep oceans: Resources, representations and regulatory governance

About the project

Oceans today are beset by a variety of problems, ranging from habitat devastation, depletion of fish stocks and acidification, to the many intricate and interconnected effects attributable to climate change. Oceans are a global matter of concern. While the severity of these problems are widely acknowledged, established protocols of governance seem inadequate to deal with the complex set of challenges we are facing today. The failure to establish a regulatory regime to safeguard and care for what lies beyond national borders and jurisdiction, what is typically referred to as “the high seas and the deep oceans”, is particularly acute, prompting the Global Ocean Commission to compare the governance of the area with a “failed state”. Existing regulatory measures and control procedures stem from a heterogeneous body of international agreements and treaties, regional and nation-specific regulations as well as private norms. Despite these multiple-layered, tightly woven webs of activity-shaping laws, rules and standards, a number of gaps and loopholes still exist. The outcome is a regulatory system simultaneously characterized by regulatory complexity as well as insufficiency of governance.

Beside legal dilemmas and competing political interests, the challenges related to the use and regulation of the high seas and deep oceans cannot be disentangled from the cultural context in which they are formulated and implemented. However, an understanding of these decisive conditions is frequently absent in the analyses of the governance crisis of the high seas and deep oceans. From the mapping of the high seas during the age of discovery, by way of the surveys of the deep oceans of the 19th and 20th century, to the present charting of underwater mineral deposits as well as monitoring of the world’s ecological situation; institutions, technologies, practices and imaginaries, all underpin our use of the oceans. These epistemological and institutional conditions are what we term the resource modalities of the oceans, a concept we use to underline the shifting political, economic, and scientific perceptions of the seas. Understanding the ocean as a multi-layered space shaped by distinct modalities enables us to compare the various usages of the oceans and to discern their interactions.

Using resource modalities as a conceptual platform, we propose a multidisciplinary study of the relationship between the representations and regulatory governance of the high seas and deep oceans and their resources. Combining legal, aesthetical and historical approaches, the project will explain how, gradually transformed by human use, the high seas and the deep oceans took on the features of a medium to be used, a valuable asset to be exploited, and a governable territory to be controlled. However, these modalities are neither complete nor mutually exclusive. Instead, they form layers in the human history of the oceans, temporarily overlapping, interlinking, sustaining as well as clashing with each other. What looks like uniform bodies of water, are in fact historical composites of contiguous and culturally conditioned resource-spaces, the exploitation of which was made possible by their representations and regulations, technologies and sciences. As various resources have been dominated by different modalities at different times, the historicity of the marine and maritime resources must be understood as integral to their regulations and representations.  

We propose to study how the high seas and the deep oceans have, over the centuries, been transformed from a barrier to a resource to be controlled, exploited and regulated. Our project reaches back to the age of discovery, from about 1500, and combines studies spanning the enlightenment, modernity and contemporary concerns. It is organized along three mutually supporting and interlocking work packages. Each work package is concerned with one resource modality, highlighting its specific origins, possibilities and limitations, but also its continuous transformations. In turn, each work package consists of a number of individual studies highlighting a particular constellation of how the sea has been understood and how it has been sought controlled, regulated and governed. The work packages will explain the modality transformations of the oceans through the use of multidisciplinary methods and approaches.

  • Work package 1 Medium analyzes the transformation of the sea from being a barrier to a highway. It investigates the intersection of shipping regulations and their representations in in early modernity, during the Enlightenment and in the 1800s.
  • Work package 2 Asset explores how the representation of the deep sea as a treasure trove of riches has led to calls for international regulation of their exploitation and extraction.
  • Work package 3 Territory investigates how scientific and technological representations have shaped parts of the high seas into sovereign spaces under national jurisdiction, and others into commons.


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