Charted Waters? Tracking the Production of Conservation Territories on the High Seas



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International Social Science Journal


From bleached reefs to declining fish stocks and plastic garbage patches, recent research and news headlines suggest that the oceans are in a state of crisis. The crisis is often explained using the “overuse narrative” of the oceans (Steinberg 2008), which highlights how historic human interactions with the oceans have followed a “frontiermentality”. Specifically, the oceans have often been treated as a resource frontier that is paradoxically characterised by both abundance and emptiness; marine resources are seen as abundant, available to be exploited as efficiently and maximally as possible, while marine space is vast and empty, available to absorb waste and pollutants. The recent, rapid decline in marine biodiversity, and its consequences for ecosystem function and services, is a result of this frontier mentality and a key feature of the oceans crisis (Sala and Knowlton 2006). While responses to the various elements of the “oceans crisis” are many and diverse, scientists and conservationists overwhelmingly advocate for marine protected areas (MPAs), especially notake areas, as the preferred tool for marine biodiversity conservation (Gray 2010). The IUCN defines protected areas, including marine protected areas, as any “clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated andmanaged, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values” (Dudley 2008, p.8). The number and spatial extent of MPAs worldwide has increased dramatically in recent years (UNEP-WCMC and IUCN 2016). This increase is emblematic of a broader proliferation of conservation territories, defined by Zimmerer (2006, p.65) as “human-designed spaces of nature protection and resource management”. Conservation territories are spatial interventions premised on legal and/or other institutional systems that rework humanenvironment relations and resource access and control in particular ways. An MPA is thus both a form of territory (Chmara-Huff 2014) and an object of governance (Jentoft et al. 2007). In this paper, I examine the long-term, international effort to enable establishment of MPAs in areas beyond national jurisdiction (“the high seas”), a process that is significant both for its potential to rework the high seas frontier mentality to include conservation and for its implications for the concept of territory.



CBD, WCC, protected areas, marine