How Does the Ocean Get Rights and Why Does It Need It?

Reader Contribution by Darlene May Lee and Earth Law Center
article image

For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it.Jacques Yves Cousteau

When we think about Earth, we usually think about land: trees, plants, and flowers. Then we consider photogenic big animals like snow leopards and pandas (the technical term for these particular big animals, by the way, is “charismatic mega fauna” – large animal species with widespread popular appeal[1] – there so now we can both sound like experts). Actually, water covers most of the planet – the ocean’s surface accounts for 71% of Earth’s surface and contains 97% of our planet’s water[2]. That’s why you see Earth referred to as the “blue planet”. Viewed from space, Earth is most definitely blue.

Who doesn’t love a trip to the beach? But I didn’t really consider more deeply why humans need oceans to survive. Some of the surprising things I learned include:

Scientists estimate there may be as many as 9 million species of life in the ocean that we haven’t discovered yet, in addition to the 1 million known species[3]
Not only do oceans produce half of the oxygen of the planet, half the world’s population lives within the coastal zone[4]
About a quarter of all carbon (released as carbon dioxide from fuel burning and other human activity) is absorbed by the ocean (another quarter went to plants, and half stayed in the atmosphere)[5]

So I now know more precisely how life on the planet depends on the ocean. So how is the ocean doing these days? What I found:

Unfortunately, carbon absorption has changed the pH of the ocean (which has been slightly basic for over 300 million years). In just the last 200 years, the absorbed carbon sharply increased causing a 25% increase in acidity [6]– which weakens marine species ability to grow, reproduce and survive[7]
Acidification and rising temperatures have combined to stress coral reefs such that half are gone just in the last 30 years. Coral reefs support a quarter of all marine species and half a billion people around the world but scientists predict that at current rates, 90% of coral reefs will be gone by 2050.[8]

So clearly the ocean needs our help and current protections need to expand. What are the current protections, you might ask? Over 5,000 marine protected areas (MPAs) have been established around the world[9]. Although this represents just 1% of the total ocean, at least it’s a start. Building on the growing rights of nature movement around the world, Michelle Bender from Earth Law Center (ELC) has created a new framework for ocean rights. The proposed framework builds on current Marine Protected Area guidelines, and goes one step further to recognize legal rights for these MPAs.

Why does it matter? A four-year global study of 7,800 marine species concluded that catches of all presently fished seafood will decline by more than 90% by 2048.[10] That doesn’t just mean no more Chilean Sea Bass with a squeeze of lemon, that means wholesale collapse of critical ecosystems that make up the ocean. On the plus side, the report also found evidence that wherever protective measures were taken, species recovered rapidly and could cope better with problems such as global warming.[11] So granting legal rights to marine protected areas means stepping up the protection of all the species in that ecosystem – and protecting the ocean and its species, which make our world livable for human beings.

Michelle unveils ELC’s new framework at the 4th International Marine Protected Area Congress in Chile in September. She’s also launched projects for the Patagonian Sea, the Whale and Dolphin Sanctuary in Uruguay and adding rights based governance to a new maritime bill in partnership with the Inkatha Freedom Party in South Africa. Want to give her a hand? Follow and share the news. Volunteer with an Ocean organization near you. Donate and support specific legal initiatives that will secure rights of nature for oceans. Email or visit us at to find which of our latest initiatives most engages you.













Darlene May Lee is Executive Director of Earth Law Center, which works to transform the law to recognize and protect nature’s inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve. She works to build a force of advocates for nature’s rights at the local, state, national, and international levels. Connect with Earth Law Center on TwitterFacebookand LinkedIn. Read all of Darlene’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368