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Who Owns the Ocean?

Pete Springer/OPB

Three weeks after the massive oil spill started in the Gulf, BP CEO Tony Hayward said the amount of oil and chemicals in the sea were tiny compared to the enormous ocean. But for many people, this disaster has highlighted how many different interconnected species are affected by the spill, and the limitations of finite ocean resources.

Of course, the world’s oceans have faced growing demands even before this spill. In the Northwest, people use the ocean for fish, for access to energy sources, for scientific research and for recreation. How do these different interests compete? How do they collaborate?

The effort to set aside marine reserves off the Oregon coast has led to questions about how ocean resources should be used and protected. (In California, at least one dispute over who owns the ocean centered around an entrprenuer’s dream of a floating airport.) A new ocean monitoring system is expected to provide unprecedented scientific information about the Pacific, and could affect marine life. Efforts to develop wave energy have also led to questions of rights in the ocean. Early attempts to capture wave energy off the Oregon coast were perhaps symbolized by the sinking of a wave energy buoy near Newport three years ago. Now, Ocean Power Technologies is preparing to deploy the first in an array of ten buoys. It would be the country’s first commercial wave energy site.

But despite a host of new agreements, how energy, fishing, research and recreation will co-exist remains to be seen. Earlier this spring, the Newport News Times wrote

The uncertainties and unknowns have stirred questions and concerns from the outset, but the underlying concern is who “owns” — or should own — Oregon’s territorial sea? And should private enterprises receive long-term “deeds”?…

Much depends on the costs incurred — financial, social, ecological — and benefits gleaned.

Legally, the state controls the ocean from the shoreline three miles out. Federal waters start there and go to 200 miles from the shore. Who does own the ocean? Who is responsible for what happens there? 

What do you take from the ocean? Does the sea belong to you?


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