The Complications of Ocean Politics, Policy and Governance – Who Is Steering the Ship?

The Complications of Ocean Politics, Policy and Governance – Who Is Steering the Ship?

Sydney, Australia: With the ocean under extreme threat from issues such as pollution and overfishing, we need to ask – who is governing the ocean? It might not be a topic people often consider, but it’s one we need to start questioning before it’s too late.

“Healthy oceans are the life support system for our planet, providing 97 percent of the Earth’s livable habitat and a home to more than 700,000 species. The oceans are vital to human health as well, providing jobs, enjoyment and food to billions of people. Half of the oxygen we breathe is generated by our oceans.” – Greenpeace, USA 2017

Ocean governance is an incredibly complex topic, with multiple stakeholders involved (NGOs, government etc) coordinating policies, affairs and actions. Since the ocean is a common resource, it’s not owned by any one individual group. This could explain why there has been mass overexploitation of ocean resources, such as fishing, and a lack of responsibility. Elizabeth DeSombre in her book Global Environmental Institutions, states that ‘rules on the conduct of the ocean can only be implemented through international agreements’. Organisations such as the United Nations are taking notice of this and starting to collaborate internationally on ocean protection. For progression to take place to govern the ocean in a sustainable way, the government needs to be actively involved.

What is the government currently doing in Australia, and what can they do?

The Complications of Ocean Politics and Policy

Political Problems

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), European countries are leading the way in marine conservation. Leaders in countries such as Slovenia, Germany and Norway have taken specific measures to protect marine areas and coastlines. Monaco has 100 percent of its marine areas protected, compared to Australia’s 48.5 percent (soon to be closer to 24 percent).

It’s upsetting, in contrast, to see other world leaders deliberately ignoring global warming issues *cough* Donald Trump *cough*. It’s particularly upsetting when it’s happening to a marine nation like Australia. We have the capacity to do so much more here if the government invested in the environment more. Australia is a wealthy country with eco-focused consumers, filled with a significant amount of iconic and unique species. According to a recent report published on PLOS ONE, over half of Australia’s species are threatened by climate change. A significant amount of Australian species live in or rely on a healthy ocean, therefore it’s crucial to protect. Aside from species, there are also significant economic and social values to Australia’s marine life.

The Complications of Ocean Politics, Conservation and Governance

Related Post: Why Is the ‘Great Barrier Reef’ Great and How Can We Protect It?


The Australian government under Malcolm Turnbull has sadly failed on climate and marine policies so far. One controversial example is the Adani coal mine. The allegedly corrupt Indian energy company has been attempting to build one of the largest coal mines in the world alongside the Great Barrier Reef. Malcolm Turnbull has been meeting with Gautam Adani for the last few years, trying to reverse court rulings to allow the mine to be built. Considering Australia has one of the largest carbon footprints per person in the world and non-renewable energy is on the way out, this move is shameful by the government. Thankfully, due to community action, the Adani coal mine has been delayed for now.

The Complications of Ocean Politics - Who Is Steering the Ship?

Marine Parks 

Aside from the government needing to invest in better businesses and renewable energy, they also have the ability to put policies in place to actively protect marine areas. Protected areas in the ocean are called ‘marine parks’ (view Australia’s on a map here).

Australian Marine Parks are areas established under Australian environment law to help us conserve the spectacular marine life in our oceans. They allow ecologically sustainable use of our marine resources and provide special places for people to enjoy and appreciate the fantastic diversity of our marine habitats.” – Australian Government, Department of the Environment and Energy, 2018

The Australian government has proposed a new plan to reduce marine parks, to allow commercial fishing operations. Scientists have voiced serious concern about these proposed plans, which would almost halve the number of marine park protections (from 50% to 24%). This has happened previously under Tony Abbott, who suspended a previous government’s network of marine reserves. Clearly, the government has significant power to make a change to protect the ocean.

Other Key Players

It’s not all doom and gloom in Australia. There are incredible organisations working hard to protect the ocean. I couldn’t name them all but here are a few:

These organisations focus on specific areas to promote ocean protection including education, scientific conservation programs and lobbying. For example, WWF Australia works in regions across Australia on marine programs, one being their Kimberley program where their scientific-based partnerships ensure they work “with Indigenous rangers to safeguard the Kimberley rock-wallaby, bilby and Gouldian Finch” to deliver positive and tangible conservation impacts.

On a wider scale, organisations such as the United Nations are taking charge and have formed conferences and groups to encourage collaboration and networking amongst countries.

The Complications of Ocean Politics, Policy and Governance. Dolphins at Avalon Beach, Australia
Dolphins at Avalon Beach, Australia

Worldwide there are dozens of different institutions dealing with the use or protection of the sea…Experts are therefore trying to define universally applicable rules for good governance of the sea.” – The World Ocean Review, Living with the oceans. A report on the state of the world’s ocean, 2010.

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