Delegates will assemble in New York in March this year for what will hopefully be the final substantive session of the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea (unclos), which was inaugurated in the same city in December 1973. Sessions at Caracas (1974) and Geneva (March and April 1975) failed to bring agreement on fundamental points, although a ‘single negotiating text’ was formulated for the first time at the end of the Geneva session. These delays in reaching agreement are symptomatic of irreconcilable conflicts of interest between the capitalist and socialist blocs, between the developed and underdeveloped nations, and to some extent between coastal and land-locked states. Most informed observers agree that time is running out for the conference; unless a convention can be agreed upon, at least in principle, at the New York session, there will be a rush of unilateral actions and probably a permanent militarization of ocean space. Already us consortia are champing at the bit to get their hands on seabed minerals, while fishing disputes around the world are being resolved unilaterally and bilaterally without any regard for a future international convention.

This extraordinary conference is being attended by 138 un member states and several liberation movements. The issues it is seeking to resolve have no parallel in history, for they concern the ownership and control of two thirds of the earth’s surface, and a substantial proportion of its wealth. The background to the conference is the technological progress that has made economic activity within ocean space an attractive, and indeed an essential, proposition. Deep-sea fishing and seabed mining could well be the principal sources of food and mineral resources by the 21st century. For this reason the ocean has aptly been described as the last frontier. But from a Marxist perspective, it represents something far more interesting: it is virtually the last area of the earth’s surface that has not been ‘captured’ by a mode of production. The legal codes and guidelines to regulate it have not yet been laid down. It is the first time in history that the question of social ownership and exploitation for the common good can be raised as it were ab initio.

First, we shall examine the principal areas of economic activity—deep-sea fishing and mining—that technological progress has made possible. We shall then be in a position to consider their political and military implications: the issues of territoriality and sovereignty, i.e. to what extent coastal states ‘own’ the sea beyond their coastlines and to what extent they should be able to control the activities of foreigners in their coastal waters; issues of navigation, i.e. to what extent international shipping should be controlled in coastal waters, what rights it should have of ‘innocent passage’ through territorial straits, and what obligations it should bear for pollution and other damage it causes; and issues involved in the promotion and control of scientific research in the oceans and the dissemination of the results of this research.

Fishing is still very much a hunting enterprise, i.e. it is pre-agricultural in character and so by the standards of civilization rather primitive. Nevertheless, the modern distant-water fleets of the ussr and Japan, in particular, make use of extremely sophisticated technology. Computer-run trawlers of mammoth proportions (the ussr’s Vostok is a 43,000 ton floating factory, capable of catching and processing up to 100,000 tons of fish a year) spot fish with sonars, helicopters and even satellites, lure them to the vessel using acoustic techniques (e.g. by playing them sounds of their own eating habits), and finally bring them on board with suction pumps or by the use of electric fields (which stun them) instead of nets. It is not unknown for the hunters to over-kill their prey, and declining yields are already a nightmare reality in the fishing industry. Between 1950 and 1970, the total world catch doubled to reach 60 million metric tons. Since then, the effort devoted to fishing has increased, but returns have fallen: 1970, 60·6 million tons; 1971, 59·9; 1972, 52·2. The anchoveta harvest off Peru has plunged since 1972. Also declining are the Atlantic herring, the South African pilchard, the Hokkaido herring and the California sardine. The plight of the whale is well known.

It is because fish are common property that they will be hunted to extinction. At the very least a quota system is needed. But far preferable is an agricultural régime: fish farming or ‘ranching’ on a vast scale, supervised by an active international authority applying biological controls to ensure that only the increase in stocks is cropped each year.

There are quota systems in operation: for instance, the one obtaining between the members of the International Fisheries Commission for the North-West Atlantic (dominated by the ussr, usa, Canada, Spain and Portugal). But in addition to being short-term and unstable (offering no scope for trade-offs and concessions), these quota systems explicitly discriminate against countries which are only developing fishing fleets—as reflected, for example, in the attempts by South Korea to fish in areas already parcelled out to Japan, the us and Canada under the 1952 North Pacific Convention.

The distant-water fishing fleets of the northern hemisphere have been moving south for some considerable time now. Coastal states that are heavily dependent on fishing have either had to look on while their livelihood is destroyed, or take unilateral action. Chile blazed this trail with its declaration of a 200 mile fishing limit in 1946, later supported by Ecuador and Peru in 1952, and finally by Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and several Central American states in the 1970 Declaration of Montevideo. Since 1952, fully half of the us fishing fleet in the Chile-Ecuador-Peru zone has been either seized, shot at or chased away; the us has had to pay more than $2 million in fines for the release of impounded ships. Closer to home was the Icelandic declaration of a 50 mile limit in 1973, when the British Conservative government sent the Navy to defend trawlermen’s ‘historic’ rights to hunt fish to extinction, even on a fishing nation’s doorstep. Things have moved fast since then, and now the uk’s White Fish Authority is complaining of eec encroachments and calling for a 200 mile limit off Britain—despite British intransigence in the latest ‘cod war’ with Iceland.