All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1970

The Wealth of the Oceans

Robert Poole, formerly an aerospace systems analyst, is now a systems engineer in Santa Barbara, California. This article is condensed and reprinted by permission from the Decem­ber, 1969 issue of Reason magazine, 42 Euston Road, Brighton, Massachusetts 02135.

The oceans cover 71 per cent of the earth’s surface; the Pacific alone measures 64 million square miles, more than the total land area of all the continents combined. As the world’s population inexorably increases, and the land becomes ever more crowded, its food-pro­ducing capabilities increasingly strained, and its mineral resources reduced towards depletion, it is reasonable that man will look toward the sea as a new frontier to use and conquer.

And well he might, for the sea is incomparably rich in oil, min­erals, and sources of food. Offshore oil wells already produce one-fifth of the world’s oil and gas; by 1980 they are expected to produce one-third of the total. Since 1946 U.S. companies have drilled over 10,000 wells off the coasts of the U. S. alone, and have invested over $13 billion in offshore exploration and development. Offshore drilling is proceeding in 27 other countries and surveys are underway in 50 others.1

The oceans act as a huge storage tank for minerals washed from the land by rivers and streams. Each cubic mile of the 350 million cubic miles of seawater contains 165 million tons of solid material—in­cluding all major industrial metals. At present, only sodium chloride (table salt), magnesium ($70 million worth annually), and bromine (70 per cent of the world’s supply) are being produced com­mercially from sea water in large amounts.

Sulfur occurs in “salt domes” located on the sea floor, and can be mined by the simple technique of piping a stream of superheated water into the dome. The heated water melts the sulfur, which is then forced up by compressed air. Current U.S. offshore production is worth $37 million annually, but the serious world-wide sulfur shortage is likely to lead to a large-scale expansion of offshore production.

On the sea floor, at depths of 1,000 feet or more, lie numerous ellipsoids of metal, from one to three inches long. Because they generally consist of from 20 to 40 per cent manganese, they are known as manganese nodules. Other components of the nodules include iron, cobalt, nickel, and copper. Since manganese, used pri­marily in steel production, is not found in the U. S., there is a great deal of interest in mining the nodules, particularly those found relatively close to the coast.

Besides oil and minerals, the oceans are a valuable source of food. At present approximately 55 million metric tons of fish—about $8 billion worth—are caught each year.2 Over half of this total is turned into meal and used as ani­mal feed. All countries possessing a shoreline participate in ocean fishing, but about 75 per cent of the total is harvested by 14 coun­tries, each of which produces over a million tons per year. The growth rate of fishing yields con­tinues to be greater than the growth rate of human population, one of the few foods for which this is the case. In view of the huge area of the sea, compared with diminishing amounts of arable land, fishing is likely to become a growth industry in the decades ahead.

Current Ocean Technology

While the U. S. government has been spending billions of the tax­payer’s dollars on a crash program to explore outer space, private businessmen, both here and abroad, have quietly been spend­ing millions of their own develop­ing new technology for exploiting the oceans. Within the last decade, a number of substantial break­throughs have been made—in transport, exploration, and produc­tion methods—which themselves are only a foretaste of what is to come.

In ocean transport, the sixties have been the decade of the super-ship—container ships and tankers with as much as ten times the capacity of the ships of the fifties. The economics of these vessels are such that it is cheaper to haul Middle-East oil around the tip of Africa via supertanker than it is to send it by conventional tanker through the Suez Canal. Along with the supership has come the develop­ment of vastly more accurate navi­gation systems. Such devices as self-contained inertial navigators (as on jet airliners), hyperbolic radio navigation systems (such as LORAN and OMEGA), and orbiting satellite position-sensing have made it possible for a ship in mid-ocean to know its position to within 0.1 mile or less (an improvement of more than 10 times over earlier methods). Thus, it is increasingly possible to think in terms of well-defined regularly traveled sea “highways.”

Progress in undersea explora­tion has been even more spectacu­lar. Within the last ten years a new type of undersea vehicle has been created—the “manned sub­mersible.” This is a vehicle de­signed specifically for undersea exploration, self-propelled and self-sufficient, in some cases with underwater hatches and various “manipulators” (remote-controlled arms and/or tools) for working on the sea floor. A few of these vessels have been Navy research craft, but for the most part they have been designed, built, and op­erated by industrial firms. Some of the better-known ones are North American’s “Beaver” (2 men, 1,000′ capability), Westing­house’s “Diving Saucer” (2 men, 1,000′) and “Deep Star” series (3 men, varying depths to 20,000′), Lockheed’s “Deep Quest” (4 men, 6,000′), and Reynolds Metals’ “Aluminaut” (6 men, 15,000′).³ These vehicles are being used for research into all aspects of under­sea operations—vehicle design, human performance underwater, mining and mineral prospecting, biological data-gathering, et cet­era. These projects and the Navy’s Tektite and Sealab experiments will provide man with a vast new capability for living and working under the sea.

Improved Production Methods

The third major area of under­seas technological progress is in production methods, the single greatest advance being in deep water drilling ability. Although offshore drilling has rapidly ex­panded in the past decade, plat­forms have been in relatively shal­low water, firmly founded on sea­bed. Recently, though, drilling companies have developed floating platforms, from which they can drill in deep water, despite buffet­ing from wind and water. One semi submersible variety makes use of water-ballasted tanks to sink the lower structure sufficient­ly beneath the turbulent surface to render it isolated from wind and wave motions.

Another technique, typified by the Scripps Institute of Ocean­ography’s “Glomar Challenger” ship, uses specially modified drill­ing ships. To keep this sort of ship motionless over a drilling site, it is equipped with fore-aft and port-starboard thrusters, sonar po­sition-sensors and a central com­puter which monitors the ship’s position via the sensors and sends correction signals to the thrusters. To date the Glomar Challenger has successfully drilled in waters up to 17,000 feet deep.4 This means that the distinction be­tween the continental shelves and the deep ocean is no longer mean­ingful, as far as oil drilling is concerned. Whereas the continen­tal shelves comprise about 10 per cent of the sea floor, fully 98 per cent of the sea floor is less than 20,000 feet deep, and is therefore potentially available for oil drilling.

Various ore-mining ventures are in an earlier stage of develop­ment; nonetheless, American com­panies have committed substantial amounts of money. One of the largest ventures to date, Deepsea Ventures (a subsidiary of Ten­neco), has committed $200 million toward a six-year ocean mining research and development effort.5 Already the firm has developed a prototype mining system capable of excavating the sea floor one mile down. Also in development is a rig of three-mile depth capacity. Again, of significance is the im­minent accessibility of not just the continental shelves, but virtu­ally the entire sea floor.

Developments in Food Production

Significant developments are be­ing made in food production, as well. In addition to the continued expansion of commercial fisheries, new products are being developed and marketed. One example is the production of sodium alginate from seaweed. Companies like Australia’s Alginates operate large harvesting ships to gather kelp, which is processed in factories to produce sodium alginate (used in instant puddings, salad dressings, cake mixes, beer, and other pro­cessed foods).6 Another example is the recent commercial develop­ment of fish protein concentrate (FPC) in the U. S. FPC is pro­duced by grinding up “trash fish” such as hake and processing it to yield a highly nutritious powdered food supplement containing about 75 per cent protein. Originally de­veloped by the Bureau of Com­mercial Fisheries, FPC is now be­ing produced commercially by companies such as Alpine Marine Protein Industries.? One of the company’s first contracts was for 11 tons of FPC purchased by one of the organizations aiding Biafra. Given the extremely low cost of FPC (relative to other protein), and the huge need for protein in much of the world, the market for FPC appears to be vast.

The Legal Regime of the Seas

Throughout history international law has considered the seas beyond the jurisdiction of any state. The general rule has been “freedom of the seas,” the right of anyone to use the ocean for navigation, trade, and fishing, limited only by the boundaries of each nation’s small offshore area (until recently either a three-mile or twelve-mile buffer zone).

A new trend began, however, after World War II. In 1945 Pres­ident Truman asserted that the U. S. possessed exclusive title to the resources of the continental shelf surrounding the U. S. Al­though Truman’s proclamation ex­cluded any claims to jurisdiction over the water overlying the shelf or any restriction on navigation, the example had been set, never­theless. In short order, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile made new claims to offshore territory, out to dis­tances of as much as 200 miles. In each case, Truman’s declaration was cited as a precedent. In the case of Ecuador and Peru, the jurisdiction included both the water and navigation rights, in an effort to protect their fishing in­dustries. Various American fishing interests have recently urged that the U. S. make a similar declara­tion to keep European and Rus­sian trawlers out of the New Eng­land off-shore fishing areas.

This type of bickering led to the 1958 Geneva Conference on the Law of the Sea, attended by delegates of most maritime na­tions. The conference worked out an agreement on the continental shelf, which defines the shelf as “the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas adjacent to the coast, but outside the area of the territorial sea, to a depth of 200 meters or, beyond that limit, to where the depth of the super adjacent waters admit of the exploi­tation of the natural resources of the said area.”8 The conferees agreed that the seabed so defined is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the adjacent nation’s govern­ment.

At the time of the Convention, the above definition closely ap­proximated the area commonly meant by the term “continental shelf,” since exploitation of re­sources at depths below 200 meters (665 feet) was considered fairly unlikely. As previous paragraphs have pointed out, however, tech­nology has made major advances in the last decade, to the point where the 1958 wording now im­plies that the continental shelves are virtually unlimited, extending as far into the deep ocean as a nation’s technology will permit. As a result, there is increasing discontent with what now appears to be a very imprecise definition. Consequently, the past several years have seen an extensive round of conferences on the sub­ject, such as 1969′s Law of the Sea Institute Annual Summer Conference, the Marine Techno­logical Society meeting in Miami, and the Italian International Re­gime of the Sea symposium.

In 1967 the government of Malta introduced a proposal in the UN that would assert the UN’s jurisdiction over, and own­ership of, all deep-sea resources, to assure that “all mankind” would benefit from them. After several years of discussion, on December 16, 1969, the General Assembly adopted (62 to 28) a resolution stating that pending establish­ment of an international regime for the seabed, states and indi­viduals were “bound to refrain” from all exploitation of the sea­bed beyond territorial limits. In addition, “no claims to any part of that area or its resources shall be recognized.”9 The reaction from American industrialists? Of course: silence.

Nationalists vs. Internationalists

The controversy, to this point, has revolved around two “oppos­ing” views. The nationalists, on the one hand, favor an extension of the sovereignty of existing na­tion-states into the deep seabed, in order to protect and regulate the activities of the companies and/or agencies of those countries. The internationalists, by contrast, favor the expropriation of the deep seabed by an international agency, with much of the proceeds from commercial exploitation go­ing to aid government programs in undeveloped countries.

This is a classic example of the fallacy of false alternatives. The issue is invariably presented in terms of “who should control sea­bed exploitation and how should the resources be divided up?” rather than asking whether it should be controlled and whether anyone other than the entrepre­neur has the right to “divide up” the resources. For in fact there is a third alternative—a libertarian alternative—based firmly on rights, rather than feelings.

No one has the right to grant leases or concessions or drilling rights to that which he does not own, no matter how powerful his armed forces or how needy his constituents. The resources of the seabed are unowned resources, at present nobody’s property, and therefore the property of whoever first successfully extracts them.

How would this principle work in practice? Wouldn’t there be chaos, piracy, and warfare? No. There is no reason why peaceable development could not come about without government sovereignty over the seabed. First of all, nonation now claims sovereignty over the surface of the oceans—yet all nations freely use the seas for trade and commerce. Would trade be more peaceable if the UN extracted tribute from all ships which wanted to use the oceans? The suggestion is absurd, because freedom is so obviously superior to force. “Freedom of the seas” has a long history, violated at times, but generally adhered to, because it is in the long-term in­terest of all.

The seabed does pose problems not present on the surface, such as the (ultimately) limited amount of area to which claims may be laid. But past human experience provides some guidance. The sea­bed is a frontier area of un­claimed “land,” much as the Amer­ican West once was. With little formal legal theory and the barest minimum of government available, the early pioneers developed rea­sonably just concepts for defining ownership of this new frontier land. Several of these are worth examining for applicability to the seabed case.

Mining Claims

Nearly everyone is familiar with the archetypical Western pros­pector, who roamed the unowned property of the frontier, search­ing for gold or silver. When he found a promising spot, he “staked out a claim” to a piece of land of a size he could work, and reg­istered it with the authorities. If first to register a claim, he be­came the owner. He could not go out and make wild claims to huge amounts of territory; he estab­lished a claim by working the property in question. It became his through use. Objections might be raised to certain details of the way the process was handled in the early West. The important point is the principle involved—that of ownership arising out of original usage of a particular plot of land.

The same principle is equally applicable to the seabed. Modern digital information storage and retrieval systems, plus high-speed global communication systems and precision navigation and position-fixing systems, should make reg­istering claims preventing “first-user” conflicts and pinpointing precise locations and boundary definitions eminently feasible. As for fears that “the few” will grab all the resources before “the many” have a chance to develop the tech­nology, it is helpful to remember that the seabed comprises more than twice the land area of all the countries of the world. As long as no one can claim more than he can directly use (i.e., as long as governments cannot assert wild claims of “sovereignty”), it will be a long time before the seabed is all “used up.”

The principle involved in fron­tier homesteading was much the same as that in mining claims. A particular plot of land of a size suitable for farming became the property of the first settlers to live there and actually work the land. The fact that the U. S. gov­ernment initially “owned” the land is really beside the point; the essential feature is the principle of ownership arising out of usage. The same principle would apply to any sort of habitation or farming of the seabed or continental shelves. The fact that, at first, probably only large companies could afford such ventures has no bearing on the principle involved.

Open Range

Another frontier principle with direct applicability to the ocean is the concept of the open range. For many ranchers, building fences to restrain their herds would have been both expensive and self-defeating, since it would have severely limited the amount of grazing land over which the herds could roam. It was in the interest of all the ranchers to let the cattle herds roam freely over all the open range. In order to keep track of ownership, each rancher devised a unique brand, with which he marked all his cattle. The ranchers respected each others’ brands and cooperated to prevent cattle rustling by thieves. The cattle could thus move as re­quired to good grazing land, with­out loss of ownership identifica­tion.

Much discussion has taken place in recent years about conservation of commercially-valuable marine life. Whales, in particular, are feared to be nearing extinction and even certain food fish (such as tuna, cod, herring, and perch) are considered “overfished” in cer­tain areas. The usual conserva­tionist “answer” is to forcibly im­pose restrictions on the size of catches or the efficiency of fishing methods. Yet this is essentially a negative, preserve-the-status-quo approach (besides being a viola­tion of rights). Had men taken the same approach with land ani­mals (i.e., “conserving” wild cat­tle, pigs, and chickens for hunt­ing), the world could support only a fraction of the population it supports today, through animal husbandry. Obviously, the same approach will eventually have to be applied to marine animals.

For large marine animals, such as whales, seals, sea turtles, and tuna, the open range concept can be applied, with the entire ocean substituted for open grazing land. Just as the ranchers found it wise to let their domesticated herds roam free, so might the aqua-ranchers of the future. Identifica­tion of the animals is not impos­sible: whales could actually be branded, although a better solution for all large marine animals might be to implant micro miniature transmitters in the young, per­mitting the movement of individ­uals or schools to be monitored continuously. Arthur C. Clarke, in his novel, The Deep Range¹º, suggests that small manned sub­marines could be used for under­sea herding, thus completing the open range analogy.

The aquarancher’s return on his investment might be substantially improved if he raises large num­bers of fish in captivity before turning them loose in supervised herds. The number of baby fish reaching maturity is only a mi­nute fraction of the number hatched, due to predators and other hazards. By constructing large undersea net-pens, and using the same mass egg-fertilization and fish culturing techniques used in raising trout and other inland fish, the aqua rancher could in­crease the annual catch by orders of magnitude. Smaller species could be raised entirely in huge undersea net-pens, again with vastly improved yields.

These few examples are meant as illustrations of the possibilities inherent in a situation where free­dom, rather than force, prevails. Their realization requires no “sov­ereignty,” hordes of bureaucrats, or volumes of regulations; it re­quires only that “freedom of the seas” be extended to the seabed, i.e., that all involved in undersea development recognize the rights of all participants on a first-come/ first-served basis. Disputes which arose could be referred to the Per­manent Court of Arbitration or the International Court of Justice at the Hague, as maritime dis­putes have been for many years. Defense of various seabed instal­lations could be provided by the navies of each installation’s home country (if any), or by the par­ticipants themselves. Indeed, one of the more interesting prospects of a free seabed is that new cities—free ports—may be created, in­dependent of and unhampered by any state.

Before Governments Take Charge, Why Not Try Freedom?

In most spheres of human ac­tion, the state is already firmly established, with its vast array of rules and regulations, layers of bureaucracy, and well-established penalties for transgressors. With the seabed, however, the state is very late in catching on to what technology is making possible. As the foregoing has pointed out, much of the technology needed for deep-seabed exploitation is al­ready in existence. The rapid es­tablishment of operational drill­ing, mining, and living installa­tions on and under the sea would confront the statists with a fait accompli which would make any opposing action on their part much harder to pull off.

It is interesting to note that both the U. S. and Russia opposed the recent General Assembly reso­lution calling for a moratorium on seabed exploitation, as did many of the governments of Europe. Thus, those nations whose en­gineers and industrialists already have the means to exploit the sea­bed could easily proceed on their own to set up a data bank for registering individual claims to seabed property (on the basis of use), and agree to arbitration of disputes by the international Court.

The statists have had their chance: they have spread their coercive bureaucracies over every square mile of land on earth. The oceans represent man’s second chance—perhaps his last—to solve the environmental problems that, unchecked, threaten his extinction. It is time—past time—that men of integrity stood up and said, “Enough!” Laissez-faire: hands off the sea.



1 “The Physical Resources of the Oceans,” Edward Wenk, Jr., Scientific American, Vol. 221, No. 3, September, 1969, p. 166.

2 “The Food Resources of the Oceans,” S. J. Holt, Scientific American, Vol. 221, No. 3, September, 1969, p. 178.

3 “Manned Submersibles,” L. S. Linder­roth, Jr., Mechanical Engineering, June, 1968, p. 32.

4 “Technology and the Ocean,” William Bascom, Scientific American, Vol. 221, No. 3, September, 1969, p. 199.

5 “Ocean Firm Launches $100-200 Mil­lion Mining Venture,” Ocean Industry, March, 1969, p. 66.

6 “Harvesting Seaweed Off Australia,” Ocean Industry, March, 1969, p. 69.

7 “Fish Protein Concentrate Produc­tion Is on the Rise,” Ocean Industry, January, 1969, p. 36.

8 “Alternatives for Ocean Policy,” Norman J. Padelford, Technology Re­view, July/August, 1969, p. 35.

9 “UN Votes to Stop Civil Seabed Uses,” New York Times, December 16, 1969.

10 Arthur C. Clarke, The Deep Range, Harcourt, Brace, 1957.