The resources of the world's oceans, from fish to oil and minerals, are vast, but finite. And it is quickly becoming apparent that nations will increasingly be squaring up over how these marine riches should be divided.

Fortunately, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides a comprehensive and reasonably robust framework for the peaceful resolution of such disputes — and much else besides. Less fortunately, the US Senate has yet to ratify the country's membership of the convention. It should do so immediately, so that the United States can play a grown-up role in the development of the framework established by the treaty. The same argument applies to another two dozen or so other nations, from Turkey to Peru, that have yet to ratify the convention.

The current, prolonged boom in prices for oil, gas and minerals is bringing to the fore resource issues that the UN convention was designed to help untangle. Last week's placement of a Russian flag on the sea floor at the North Pole (see Nature 448, 520–521; doi:10.1038/448520b 2007) offered an aptly melodramatic foretaste of the difficulties that are likely to transpire as nations engage in a scramble for the oceans.

When humans were less able to harm the sea, it could be a lawless common.

And it won't just be old European powers that will be staking their claims. In this issue, we report how India's oceanographic research interests, for example, are already stretching from the Equator to the poles (see page 642). When humans were less able to harm the sea — skating on its surface in wooden boats and taking resources in relatively small quantities — it could be a lawless common. But now our society must manage the sea very carefully, lest the waters become a lifeless waste.

As much as any other scientific discipline, oceanography is inextricably tied up with the material and military exploitation of the territory that it studies. The UN convention sets out the factors that should determine which waters fall under the economic control of each nation. The undersea Russian flag is merely the symbolic component of an ongoing petition about its marine rights, which are linked to geology. If Russia can convince a commission set up under the convention that its continental shelf does indeed extend far beneath the Arctic ice, it will be able to claim exclusive rights over valuable oil and gas deposits.

The convention also sets out rules for shipping: protecting the right of 'innocent passage' for ships to pass through territorial waters without special permission. It prohibits piracy and includes environmental safeguards, requiring, for example, that nations set sustainable fishing policies and refrain from damaging the interests of other nations with pollution emanating from their waters.

And it includes a right to conduct scientific research anywhere on the immense swathe of ocean that is not controlled by any country, as long as the work is peaceful, noncommercial and disseminated freely. The treaty's scope can expand as fresh issues arise: at the convention's most recent meeting, in May in New York, a framework for dealing with marine genetic resources was discussed.

In practice, the United States already abides by nearly all of these provisions. So why has the treaty languished there since 1994 without its ratification even being considered on the Senate floor? At one point, opposition focused on a section on seabed mining that representatives of some nations considered too restrictive. But since that was rewritten, also in 1994, opposition has been confined primarily to a dozen or so conservative senators who are philosophically opposed to the encroachment of UN rules on what they regard as the United States' rights as a sovereign nation.

Everyone else, from the environmental lobby and the oil industry to the US Navy and the administration of President George W. Bush, is now publicly backing ratification. Last week's flag-planting prompted a spokesman from the Department of State to call on the Senate to ratify the law in the United States' own interests, saying he was “hopeful that when Congress comes back in session they'll give it due consideration”.

It is up to Senator Joseph Biden (Democrat, Delaware), chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, to bring a resolution of ratification through his committee to the Senate floor. He should do so at the earliest available opportunity.