Skip Navigation

Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2014

ResizeResize Text: Original Large XLarge Untitled Document Subscribe

Books of Note: Environmental Governance of the Great Seas: Law and Effect

Joseph F. C. DiMento and Alexis Jaclyn Hickman, Cheltenham, UK, Northampton, MA, Edward Elgar, 2012 (ISBN 978-1-84844-375-4).

The greatest disjunction that exists in environmental affairs is that between the importance of oceans and how we protect them. While about 71% of the world's surface is covered by water and almost half of the world's population lives near seashores, less than 1% of oceans is safeguarded. This book explores the means to govern and defend the seas, and the core of the book is an analysis of the law designed to shield regional seas and an assessment of its effectiveness. It offers an essential primer of international conventions, institutions, and laws and regulations that guide maritime governance that is useful to both specialists and newcomers to this issue area. Among its most valuable contributions are a comprehensive list of acronyms used to identify the myriad of patchwork mechanisms operational in this otherwise most confusing policy area; a summary of various definitions of oceans and seas; a overview of the regulations of the international seas and oceans commons; and descriptions of regional governance in the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the East Asian Seas, the Mediterranean Sea, the West and Central African Seas, and the wider Caribbean Region. The book concludes with an accounting of effectiveness based on several criteria, including improved law and policy and better relations among states and peoples. The conclusion provides specific and general recommendations for the future of governance of regional seas.

One of the major questions addressed by the book is whether there is insufficient protection of biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions because there is an implementation gap (inadequate enforcement and administration of existing laws) or also a governance gap (the need for further protective laws and institutions). The answer to this question is made most difficult because of the sheer volume of global, regional, national, and local regulations covering oceans. The authors chose to treat "clusters" of initiatives and regimes and soft law that target particular places and international objectives. Yet, as the authors note, coexistence within a cluster does not imply coordination or consistent action. Knowledge of the activity of another entity within a cluster may be very limited, and there are many inconsistencies and contradictions. Providing the specific example of the North Sea, the authors cite the colorful description of the "Russian doll" effect of layer after layer of instruments, except that, unlike the dolls, mechanisms do not really fit together. Instead, clusters often mean the imposition of competing norms that can lead to "instrument implementation fatigue."

The regional seas chosen for close examination in this book offer a range of experience. The West and Central African Seas provide an example of extreme degradation. In contrast, the Baltic Sea reflects a fairly effective cluster of governance instruments at work together. The cases differ in many ways, and the authors are armed with an enormously impressive bibliography of related works, and were informed by interviews with key players. Individuals who have deep experiential knowledge that supplements that of the overall authors penned two of the case study chapters, on the Mediterranean and the Baltic seas. The evidence in each case study is presented according to a common template that includes physical characteristics, conditions of the sea, a description of the cluster of laws and institutions, and an assessment for effectiveness in terms of physical results, the implementation of laws and policies and effectiveness as measured by improved relations among the parties.

Not every case study can be summarized here, but the Black Sea chapter is representative because it commends the extent of progress made and emphasizes the challenges that remain. The Black Sea was known as a tragedy in the 1980s and 1990s and today has recovered to some extent. Unlike many of the other case studies, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) does not administer the Black Seas Regional Program. Instead, it has its own secretariat and has profited greatly from the involvement of the European Union (EU), which has provided legal, financial, and political support for connectivity and coordination among institutions. Despite this help, monitoring is not yet sufficient. Fish stocks decline remains a problem despite evidence of increased biomass and species diversity. One of the most significant improvements in the region has been in public health because of the increase in waste treatment plants. The EU process-oriented model of governance through which hierarchical systems of tight control are being replaced by networked governance of polycentric and multileveled collaboration can be credited with much of the improved effectiveness of arrangements. The authors conclude that further progress is likely to be impeded by the lack of even modest financial contributions of the member states, active hostilities among members that are not related to the environment but nonetheless poison relationships, and perceived economic constraints.

Along with the introduction, the concluding chapter, which is an accounting of the governance of the seas, is likely to be of greatest interest to the general reader. On balance, the assessment is mildly and only tentatively positive. Most of the regional seas confront problems of endangered and invasive species, loss of habitat, coastal pollution and erosion, and diminished fish stocks. The overall inventory of international legal efforts is large and impressive, at least on paper, but these laws and institutions are not sufficiently effective in implementation. Capacity building by the UNEP has helped in a number of cases, and the trajectory in many of the cases is toward improvement, if not in the physical conditions of the seas, at least in relationships among the parties. More remains to be done than has been accomplished, and problems threaten to overrun limited progress. The authors conclude with recommendations to build upon the Law of the Sea regime and regional seas programs. Further, the authors recommend that governance initiatives should continue to recognize the value of ecosystems approaches. Finally, the book insists that our conceptualization of the seas must change from something that is "out there," inexhaustible, exotic, and unknown, to view the oceans as a common but endangered heritage we must actively protect.

HELEN INGRAM is a Research Fellow at the Southwest Center, University of Arizona.

In this Issue

On this Topic

Taylor & Francis

© 2017 Taylor & Francis Group · 530 Walnut Street, Suite 850, Philadelphia, PA · 19106