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Introduction to the outcomes of the 2023 NCLOS Conference on “Ocean Commons”

By: Konstantinos Deligiannis-Virvos (UiT, Norwegian Centre for the Law of the Sea)

Matter commented on: NCLOS Conference on Ocean Commons, 1-3 November 2023, Tromsø, Norway.


The term “commons” usually brings into mind the problem of the tragedy of the commons: a concept in environmental science and economics that describes a situation in which individuals belonging to a group, acting out of self-interest, deplete shared resources, leading to the detriment of the entire group (Hardin, 1968). Within the law of the sea, the term “ocean commons” generally refers to marine areas beyond national jurisdiction, where no State holds sovereignty, sovereign rights, or exclusive jurisdiction. This designation aligns with the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which distinguishes between maritime zones under national jurisdiction and areas beyond national jurisdiction.

In the context of the Anthropocene (a term used to describe the unofficial geological epoch characterized by significant human impacts on climate and ecosystems) the governance of ocean commons has become a crucial issue. The danger of seeing a “tragedy of the ocean commons” is evident in matters of overexploitation of fisheries resources, deep sea-bed mining, pollution and ecosystem degradation due to impacts of human activities, and climate change. Traditional approaches may not be sufficient to address the challenges the law of the sea is currently encountering.

Ocean Commons intersect with various challenges, including environmental and climate considerations, biodiversity, security, human rights, and living and non-living materialities. This extends to the broader spectrum of terrestrial, aerial, or oceanic commons across multiple dimensions. These considerations emphasize the need to qualify certain aspects as Ocean Commons, irrespective of their jurisdictional status under UNCLOS. Addressing these complex and interconnected issues requires a more nuanced and multidimensional approach to the governance of ocean commons in the Anthropocene.

From 1 to 3 November 2023, the Norwegian Centre for the Law of the Sea (NCLOS) held its annual Conference in Tromsø, Norway, on the theme of “Ocean Commons”. The Conference aimed to facilitate discussion between scholars covering the full range of theoretical and methodological approaches to Ocean Commons with the specific focus on the aspects of governance, legal rules and principles, agencies, and future trajectories.

The Conference consisted of two keynote lectures, two high-level panels and six panel discussions. The first keynote lecture by Ronán Long (WMU-Sasakawa Global Ocean Institute) was titled “Emerging Challenges and Opportunities in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction: Reframing Pardo’s Vision for the Ocean”.  The second keynote lecture by Richard Barnes (UiT, Norwegian Centre for the Law of the Sea and University of Lincoln) and Joanna Mossop (Victoria University of Wellington) was titled “Reframing UNCLOS from a Global Commons Perspective”. The panel discussions covered a wide array of issues related to the Ocean Commons. The first panel of the first day focused on “Governance of Areas beyond National Jurisdiction”. The second panel examined the issue of “Deep seabed Mining and the Common Heritage of Mankind”. The third panel dealt with “Global and Regional Institutions”. On the second day, the first panel explored the “Utilization and Exploitation of the Ocean Commons”. The theme of the second panel of the second day was “Stewardship and Justice”. The final panel dealt with “Critiques and New Imaginaries”. The high-level panels and the panel discussions offered many different insights on the governance of areas beyond national jurisdiction and the ideas surrounding commons.

The 2023 NCLOS Conference showcased that many different problematizations can arise within the theme of Ocean Commons. The discussions held during the Conference ranged from traditional views on the governance of Ocean Commons to critical thinking and new imaginaries that would inform our understanding of the concept and place it within the larger discussion regarding the law of the sea.

Importantly, the discussions held in Tromsø during the Conference provided a view of Ocean Commons that goes beyond tragedy. The Conference paved the way for more innovative and critical approaches in addressing the challenges facing the commons. During the Conference the participants made various propositions including the development and implementation of cooperative frameworks, community-based initiatives, effective governance structures, and an overall re-thinking of the concept of Ocean Commons. These propositions point towards re-imagining of the law of the sea that will balance individual interests with the broader goal of preserving and managing shared resources for the benefit of present and future generations.

The full conference report is available here.

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