Thursday, 2 September 2010

Review: Who Rules the Waves: Piracy, Overfishing and Mining the Oceans, Denise Russell (2010)

When a nation's economic interests are threatened military forces may be called in to settle matters, hence the striking image the book's publishers have used on the cover. Somali pirates, for example, now operate well outside of the country's 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and European and American navies have at various times in the recent past patrolled the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in order to stem losses resulting from ransom demands after tankers and other vessels have been captured by pirates using fast boats and the machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades that are in such plentiful supply in the war-ravaged country.

But piracy is not Russell's only concern, and it's not the only theme involved when guns are brought to bear. In 1995, just two years prior to the UN's Convention on the Law of the Sea being ratified, Canadian and Spanish naval vessels were seen posturing aggressively on the high seas as Canada attempted to protect migrating fish stocks inhabiting the waters off Newfoundland. Spanish trawlers were damaging the stocks, Canada said, which regularly moved in and out of its EEZ. These types of encounters in open waters still occur. Witness a current conflict involving Britain and Iceland over a mackerel fishery in the north Atlantic. The conflict echoes a similar battle between the two countries that was fought in the mid-1970s over herring and cod fisheries that Britain coveted and Iceland wanted to secure for its own use.

That conflict led to the setting up of EEZs to a distance of 200 nautical miles from a country's coastline.

Now, Russell is advocating for a new maritime regime that gets rid of EEZs and concentrates international focus on conserving the sea for all humankind. The concept of the EEZ militates against conservation, she says, because it makes us think of the oceans as a place where resources are available to be exploited. Rather, we should think of them as a common patrimony that we hold in trust for future generations.

The arguments are complex and Russell, an honorary research fellow in the Philosophy Program at the University of Wollongong and previously associate professor and head of department at the University of Sydney, has clearly spent many years researching the things she writes about in the book. Starting with a look at the roots of maritime law in a dispute over the Vatican granting exclusive ownership of the Atlantic Ocean to Spain and Portugal in the sixteenth century, which is addressed in the writings of Dutch jurist Grotius, Russell covers an extraordinary range of material encompassing such diverse subjects as undersea cultural heritage (basically, ship wrecks and the cargo they contain), the impact of oil exploration on whales, the sea gypsies of Southeast Asia (a fantastic section), fisheries management, and the sea claims of indigenous populations in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.

In addition to environmental philosophy, animals and ethics, Russell is also interested in epistemology, philosophy of psychology/psychiatry and feminist philosophy.

As should be expected from a researcher working customarily in academia, sometimes the writing is a bit dense and involved. This is not surprising where the legalities of maritime jurusdiction are so complex. But it is difficult for the reviewer, on one reading of the book, to quickly summarise the arguments in favour of the main thesis, which is that EEZs should be abolished and a new UN convention ratified along with the establishment of governing bodies that could more effectively manage the region for the benefit of all people. Maybe this quick screed is, in fact, enough to make some people want to read the book. There's a lot to enjoy in this weighty little volume. For me, the hook was its focus on fishing - a subject I have a personal interest in.

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