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A transition to sustainable ocean governance

An Author Correction to this article was published on 03 September 2020

This article has been updated


Human wellbeing relies on the Biosphere, including natural resources provided by ocean ecosystems. As multiple demands and stressors threaten the ocean, transformative change in ocean governance is required to maintain the contributions of the ocean to people. Here we illustrate how transition theory can be applied to ocean governance. We demonstrate how current economic and social systems can adapt to existing pressures and shift towards ocean stewardship through incorporation of niche innovations within and across economic sectors and stakeholder communities. These novel approaches support an emergent but purposeful transition and suggest a clear path to a thriving and vibrant relationship between humans and the ocean. Oceans provide important natural resources, but the management and governance of the ocean is complex and the ecosystem is suffering as a result. The authors discuss current barriers to sustainable ocean governance and suggest pathways forward.


A new relationship between humanity and the ocean is required to secure the continuity of the diverse life support roles provided by the sea1,2. Ocean governance faces the challenge of reflecting the multi-dimensional and interconnected role that the ocean plays in environmental health, economic prosperity and human well-being1,2,3,4, including justice and equity1,5,6,7.

The ocean, when considered as a whole, cannot be defined solely as either a state-governed public good, nor as a commodity or private good. The World Commission on Environment and Development states that “Oceans are marked by a fundamental unity from which there is no escape. Interconnected cycles of energy, climate, marine living resources, and human activities move through coastal waters, regional seas, and the closed oceans”8. The increasing prevalence and dominance of transnational corporations is also challenging the central role of governments in governance. Ocean governance thus needs a transformative shift from a state-centric approach to a global approach9 that takes into account the embeddedness of the ocean and associated actors in the wider planetary system8,10. It is therefore best seen as a commons (see Glossary in Table 1)—a non-state, non-private shared resource that can only be protected if stakeholders who depend on it take collective responsibility for preservation and restoration11 with self-devised protocols, values and norms12. An integrated approach will mean a transition to an adaptive, responsive global governance system (defined in Glossary in Table 1) for governing the ocean-as-commons; an approach which “does justice to humanity’s obligations to itself, and to the planet which is its’ home” (International Court of Justice Judge Weeramantry in Gabickovo-Nagymaros case 1997)13.

Table 1 Glossary of terminology.

These global and intertwined dynamics14 are not fully reflected in the current legal definition in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and international customary law. The ocean comprises a global commons in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction of any nation-state’s authority (the high seas and the seabed beyond continental shelves; Art 89 UNCLOS) as well as areas within nation-state sovereignty (maritime zones of coastal states including the Territorial Sea Art 2, 3, Exclusive Economic Zone Art 55, and Continental Shelf Art 76 (UNCLOS)). Governance of the Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction is generally weaker than within national jurisdictions15. A treaty for Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction is being negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations16. Until it is finalised, more than 40% of the surface of the Earth has limited formal legal protection for its natural habitat and functional ecosystems (except through a patchwork of sectoral organisations)6,17.

The rationale for a sustainable ocean transition is becoming increasingly urgent1,18. If we do not act to change course, the ocean’s key biophysical functions could collapse1. Wider global and regional pressures (what we refer to as ‘landscape pressures’—see Glossary in Table 1) on the ocean include rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions1,19, changes in chemistry, which impact species and food webs throughout ocean ecosystems2,8,20, warming21,22,23, deoxygenation24, overfishing, and run-off of pollution from land and coastal sources1,25. The Earth system—and the ocean in particular—is at risk of “irreversible or unimaginable” change26.

In addition, the ocean is becoming a new economic frontier for production of energy, minerals and food6. Coastal zones are not only at the forefront of transition challenges, but they bear the brunt of climate change impacts27. Ocean sustainability transitions are therefore interdependent with those on land. The coastal zone serves as the interface between land-based society and expanded ocean economic activity. Coastal land use planning and integrated ocean management are therefore critical elements of a transition to a sustainable ocean economy28.

The ocean has been identified as one of six key coupled social–ecological systems that require transformative change to achieve the UN sustainable development goals29. Here we argue that a purposeful transition to a more sustainable ocean system requires a profound departure from business-as-usual to a global regulatory effort to pursue ocean sustainability. Transformation to a thriving ocean system requires changes in governance across sectors and scales, with effective and inclusive participation by multiple actors10,30. The end result would be a form of “polycentric governance” (see Glossary in Table 1) that can manage shared resources and ocean space31. Ocean polycentricism may require a rule-setting global institution (such as an Ocean Agency, Box 1), to support multiple governing bodies by establishing a shared vision, and creating principled guiding frameworks and processes to facilitate coherent systems-oriented regulation (10. In a complex world characterized by nationalist resistance to multi-lateralism on the one hand and the unviability of centralized control on the other (eg.32), such a polycentric system will require a balance between markets, government regulation and peer-to-peer commons-type institutional configurations.

Although transitions to what the Preamble to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) referred to as a “transformed world” are being tackled from many different perspectives (see ref. 33), two mainstream schools of thought have emerged. Firstly, there is resilience thinking associated with the international Resilience Alliance and the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Here the focus is on regime shifts and transformations of social-ecological systems to cope with, adapt to, and transform in the face of change30,34,35,36. Secondly, there is the Dutch School of sustainability transition theory that emerged after the turn of the millennium37,38,39. Whereas resilience thinking’s roots are in ecosystem science40, the sustainability transitions approach emerged from evolutionary economics, science/technology and society studies, and innovations research. Both are premised on an interpretation of complexity theory and represent the foundation for the arguments presented here.

The dynamics of sustainable transitions and transformations

Since the beginning of human civilization, people have collaborated to secure and protect natural resources they have depended on for their survival11. Communities have routinely devised complex polycentric governance arrangements to transform open-access environments (such as fishing grounds) into regulated commons regimes11,41. Commons management of this nature is characterised by a commitment to equitable access, use and sustainability42.

During the process of industrialization, the commons has gradually been replaced by either private ownership or public goods owned or controlled by states43,44. Recent work to support sustainability transitions or transformative change in governance towards ecosystem stewardship has brought the commons back into focus, with a particular focus on natural systems, including forests, water resources, soils and the ocean45. Stewardship has been defined as a strategy to respond to and shape social-ecological systems under conditions of uncertainty and change to sustain both people and planet44. Stewardship approaches are designed to promote resilience when existing systems (socio-technical regimes, see Glossary in Table 1) are no longer able to accommodate or adapt to a new set of ecological, social or economic conditions26,37,38,39,46. Socio-technical regimes can reinforce entrenched governance arrangements that prevent effective responses to these landscape pressures. For example, despite the rapid growth in renewables worldwide, there is no significant decline in CO2 emissions, largely because of inter-dependent sets of interests reinforced by existing tax and subsidy regimes47. For a given socio-technical regime to give way to an alternative, a vast array of complex system components need to be dismantled and re-organized. Interests dependent on these socio-technical regimes often resist change. Resistance arises as a result of various factors including entrenched power relations, dominant economic or political subsystems, the limits of human imagination and societal norms30, or the failure to recognize that natural systems such as the ocean would not necessarily return to historically familiar conditions48,49.

How regimes respond to these pressures will depend on their internal capacity to manage change, and how they access new knowledge about alternatives. Without these conditions, regimes resist change and niche innovations can emerge. Such innovations are alternatives that respond to landscape pressures by challenging the logic and existence of a particular regime (e.g. local renewable energy systems in the face of non-responsive fossil fuel regimes) (see Glossary in Table 1), and which can, under certain conditions, catalyze pathways to transition. The dynamics of systemic change in the ocean economy are depicted in Fig. 1. The model represents the process of isolated, emergent niche innovations, some of which mature (or expand) and ultimately replace unsustainable political, economic and social institutions. This multi-level, dynamic process of transformation is influenced by increasing landscape pressures and informed by shifts in social culture towards a sustainable, commons-centric world view over time. (Conceptually this is similar to the notion of ‘seeds of the good anthropocene’50).

Fig. 1: Dynamics of system-level change in the ocean economy.

The elements of the ocean social-economic system undergoing systemic change as a result of interactions between culture, existing regimes, and niche innovations, all of which are influenced by landscape pressures. Redrawn from Narberhaus and Sheppard116, with permission from the author and in compliance with the CC BY-SA 3.0 license, 2015

The starting point to define possible transition pathways to ocean stewardship is to (i) detail the primary drivers of change in the system, (ii) showcase demonstrations of how innovative leadership and niche-level experimentation in response to current drivers and incumbent regimes are beginning to shift the dynamics of transition, and (iii) highlight regime responses which have emerged. Although addressing the challenges facing the ocean system will require fundamental transformation, our explicit intention is to explore the evolutionary potential of the present to identify those experiments and change dynamics underway now that may aggregate into a much more significant transformative process in the future.

Transition drivers and responses

Landscape pressures drive changes in the state of the environment, and impact parts of ecosystems or society. Rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and CO2 levels specifically, represent an overarching threat to a functional ocean1,19. Acidification is harming individual species and food webs, especially in the subarctic Pacific and western Arctic Ocean2,20,51. The ocean has absorbed over 90% of the excess heat from global warming, with consequences for the biogeography of species adapted to specific temperature ranges21,22,23. Declining oxygen content dramatically manifests in increases in extreme hypoxic events and species die-offs24, disrupting nearshore ecosystems and their dependent communities. Other primary landscape pressures on ocean systems include habitat destruction, overfishing, and run-off of pollution from land and coastal sources1,25 (Fig. 1).

In a reinforcing feedback loop, climate change and development pressures lead to changes in the ocean state (e.g., frequency of extreme storm events, food web structure), thereby increasing vulnerabilities and undermining key economic activities, such as fisheries and aquaculture, tourism and shipping2. Transitions to a more sustainable ocean may occur when current socio-political regimes confront landscape pressures they were not designed to handle. Responses by specific sectors or communities may generate innovations that, when combined and scaled, can contribute to enabling these transitions.

These niche innovations can be technical, cultural, social, economic, political or legal in nature—or a mixture of all—and provide examples of what is possible, thus catalysing further transition dynamics (Fig. 1). Several regime responses illustrate how shifts in existing ocean systems towards sustainability can be made possible. For example, the International Maritime Organization and the shipping industry have contributed to significant regime responses in the shipping sector, demonstrated by the regulation of green ship recycling52,53,54,55,56 and the decarbonisation of ocean transport57. In addition, fisheries certification schemes such as that developed and overseen by the Marine Stewardship Council have contributed to transparency, accountability and traceability in the ocean based food extraction regime58, but have also generated increased attention to what this certification scheme does not do, namely address social injustices arising from competitive but declining fisheries59,60. Finally, the agreement being negotiated under the provisions of UNCLOS, known as the internationally legally binding instrument for conservation and sustainable use of Biological Diversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, is intended to address challenges in marine biotechnology such as benefit sharing, area-based management tools, environmental impact assessments, capacity-building; and the transfer of marine technology61. We focus below on innovations that have emerged as responses to landscape pressures, in order to further demonstrate such transition dynamics.

Increased attention to ocean challenges and opportunities is generating a diversity of niche innovations in the ocean system. These innovations are distinctive in that they entail forms of stakeholder collaboration and co-development of solutions that are driven by an overriding concern to protect and regenerate the ocean commons. Niche innovations emerge beyond—but interact with—the regimes within which they occur, and they can eventually coalesce into alternative regimes (Table 2, Fig. 1, and Boxes 24). Existing regimes can engage with and absorb niche innovations as their way of responding and adapting to the perceived or real pressures. Sometimes these niches are too weak and are unable to generate alternative regimes, resulting in landscape breakdown and return to previous regimes62. In the right conditions, where the regime is accommodating, and the innovation is strong enough, a transition becomes possible (Fig. 1). To illustrate the breadth of niche innovations unfolding in the ocean system, we highlight six examples of how stakeholder communities are galvanizing around new approaches for ocean stewardship (Table 2). These are: (i) Integrated Ocean Management for development planning and disaster risk management through coastal zone planning (also see Box 2); (ii) rights-based fishery management in Chilean fisheries; (also see Box 3); (iii) pre-competitive collaboration and supply chain transparency in the seafood industry (also see Box 4); (iv) decarbonizing the maritime sector; (v) information sharing platforms for co-generation of knowledge and learning, and (vi) emerging legal approaches to the ocean commons.

Table 2 Examples of emerging niche innovations for ocean stewardship.

Despite these innovative responses, and emergent niches, key challenges in shifting dynamics to sustainable ocean governance remain, including a lack of coherence, coordination and clarity27, outdated regulatory assumptions30,49, conflict over allocation of space and rights of access to resources63, inadequate monitoring and enforcement (eg. ref. 9), lack of inclusivity (eg. ref. 32) and inequity in the distribution of ecosystem service benefits (eg. ref. 5,64). A purposeful shift towards governance for a sustainable ocean is required to address these challenges and allow the innovative approaches to emerge more fully.

Pathways for transition to a sustainable ocean economy

Conventional theories of change assume that political, social or market interventions can shift a system from one structure to another (such as the transition from feudalism to capitalism)65. These theories of change do not always apply for complex systems such as the ocean, where more incremental, learning-focused, and pragmatic approaches are more likely to lead to fundamental transformation66. Such transitions through incremental change depend on active learning based on real-time information. This is not necessarily a less radical option65.

The governance mechanisms for managing both adaptive and transformative change require radical shifts if a more responsive global ocean governance system is to be established10,30,67,68. Reconfigured nation-state authority69 would occur by introducing principles such as reflexive, iterative governance (for example the voluntary national review process established for implementation and review of the UN Agenda 202070) (Glossary in Table 1), by including polycentric modes of governance (nested scales of governance from local to national or global scales, demonstrated by the Belize and Chilean examples, Table 2, Boxes 2 and 3), and by creating meta-governance frameworks (such as the regime in Antarctica (Antarctic Treaty System71).  Empowered communities participate in decisions through legal rights as well as shared knowledge and information (Table 2). Finally, stewardship responsibilities should be integrated with user and property rights, and mainstreamed among corporations (evident in the SeaBOS example in Box 4). The elements of a transition to global ocean governance are depicted in Fig. 2, and elaborated below.

Fig. 2: Elements of a governance transition to ocean stewardship.

Elements informing a transition to a more adaptive and responsive global ocean governance system for ocean stewardship driven by three primary levers: reconfiguring nation state governance; empowering the commons through justice, equity and knowledge; and making ownership generative by integrating rights with responsibilities. Concepts based on Bollier12.

A transformation to ocean stewardship is not a clear-cut, one-step change. Rather it is messy, fraught, contested, and occurs across different scales and domains33,72. Nevertheless, as we have shown, there are notable experiments and change dynamics already underway. The scale and scope of the contemporary transition required now is similar to that of the transition from hunter-gatherers to agrarian societies, and from agrarian societies to industrial societies33,73. In order to navigate the myriad complexities of this ocean transition, a balancing of economic, social and environmental objectives is required5,10. For example, the transformative approach of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs; specifically SDG 14—life below water) weaves together the numerous strands of sustainable development into an integrated set of ambitious goals that provides “coherence between policies and sectors, in all contexts—local, regional, national, transnational and global”26. It also provides a fundamental impulse for humanity—a common goal or a new “moon shot” for the global community26. The consistent and abiding reference point for the implementation of change is the protection of the commons. Stewardship of the commons has been repeatedly proven to work for millennia, while more recent Westphalian states and neoliberalism have arguably coincided with the age of unsustainability or the “early Anthropocene”10. To protect the commons, a reconfiguration of governance is required.

Reconfiguring governance

Governance to meet the needs of bottom-up and top-down ocean stewardship processes will be most effective if it draws from three key frameworks: (1) polycentric, or network, governance; (2) voluntary, adaptive governance, and (3) meta-governance.

First, while there is a need to establish common legal principles, the diversity of the ocean commons also requires a system of flexible, adaptive governance to accommodate the interplay of actors with diverging interests10,74, involving diverse institutions, overarching rules, mutual adjustment, local action and trust building30,75,76. “Polycentric", or network governance can create a decentralized system of multiple self- governing and interacting groups at different scales across policy levels45,69,77, which often can handle complexity more effectively than centralized, top-down governance78. Transformation cannot rely entirely on bottom-up local initiatives—these will not necessarily “add up” to a coherent mode of ocean governance. However, successful self-governance of common pool resources by local communities studied by Ostrom11 demonstrates the viability of sustainable polycentric governance of natural resources beyond states and markets3,78,79,80,81 that function to recognise and design policy informed by site-specific preferences, competencies and the constraints of different actors45. This local tuning translates into reflexive and transformative governance, and can reconfigure the traditional socio-technical structures of nation-state authority so that they are more responsive to system changes.

Coordinated policy-making across borders and sectors is needed to implement shared goals for the ocean5. For example, the integrated planning in Belize (Box 2) allowed for interactions among public and private sector decision makers at multiple scales (local communities to government Ministers to the President). This resulted in distinct goals, policies, and actions for each of the nine different planning regions, that cumulatively created a consistent, shared national vision. Deeply engaged communities at the local level and an adaptive national government gave rise to a reconfigured, more integrated government ministry for improved coordination, and local leaders were empowered to nimbly adjust management of their natural resources to meet environmental, social and economic goals they had defined.

Critically, multi-scalar governance of natural resources can also focus attention on the way marginalized and vulnerable social groups already use, benefit and derive well-being from these resources82. For example, the declaration of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Simangaliso in South Africa has disenfranchised a local community from a centuries old heritage of traditional fisheries usage rights, spiritual practices and customs as a result of the lack of authentic engagement with the local community83.

Second, voluntary commitments have become a well-recognized mechanism in international sustainability policy84. For example, the UNFCCC Paris Agreement includes voluntary commitments with sufficient flexibility to adapt to unfolding knowledge and system states and adjust to more ambitious goals, as well as obligatory procedural commitments such as transparency reporting85. Other examples of this style of “voluntary adaptive governance” include the Voluntary National Review process under the UN SDGs, and the Voluntary Commitments under the United Nations Our Ocean Conferences. In an evaluation of verifiable outcomes of voluntary commitments made at the Our Ocean Conferences from 2014 to 2017, Grorud-Colvert86 found that one third of the announcements focused on marine protected areas, and that almost half of these promised actions were completed at the time of publication. These voluntary commitments cumulatively added up to over 5 million km² of protected area, encompassing 1.4% of the ocean, almost doubling the quantity of implemented marine protected areas world-wide86.

Finally, to complement a flexible, polycentric approach to ocean governance, implementation in practice will need to be aligned with a measure of centralised “meta-governance” to collate information, design, and craft commons regulatory guidelines (Box 1). This central body would be responsible for developing best practices and establishing international guidelines for the implementation, monitoring and management of blue economy activities5. Several examples of supra-national frameworks exist in international environmental law. A regional example is the model law drafted by the Organisation for African Unity87, which provides a legislative guideline for domestic incorporation of the Convention on Biodiversity88, and the Nagoya Protocol89. Some established but innovative modes of supra-national governance for the ocean commons have been highly stable, such as the Antarctic Treaty System. The FAO Step-wise Guide for the implementation of international legal and policy instruments related to fisheries and conservation in areas beyond national jurisdiction90 is another example of this type of meta-governance instrument. The FAO guide offers a framework for incorporating international instruments pertaining to deep-sea fisheries and biodiversity conservation in the high seas into national policy and law. The guidance includes voluntary, flexible and practical guidelines for domestic legal integration, as well as overarching policy and normative guidelines. Other examples include numerous International Maritime Organisation Guidelines, the FAO Small Scale Fisheries Guidelines91, the Commonwealth Blue Charter, the European Commission’s Blue Growth Strategy and UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere framework. The latter, in particular, is a global governance framework whereby global ‘rules of the game’ for governance of a commons (biosphere reserves) are interpreted and implemented via local governance arrangements92.

Empowering the commons through environmental justice and a shared knowledge commons

In order to ensure fairness and justice, compliance with environmental obligations is a matter of growing concern3,77. Stronger accountability, transparency and participation mechanisms will be required to clear conflicts and enable equitable sharing between different ocean users93. Compliance with environmental obligations is generally resolved at an inter-state level94, but if one accepts that the ocean is a global commons and is part of the global social-ecological system1, then in legal terminology, the obligations inherent in concepts such as the sustainable use of natural resources, inter-generational equity and the common concern of humankind fall into the category of obligations owed to the international community as a whole94. While commons have traditionally been held in trust by sovereign nations, or collaboratively managed through inter-state relationships, this has proven insufficient to protect the ocean and other planetary commons10,81.

The international recognition of an environmental human right through an international agreement95,96,97,98,99,100,101 discussed above would create an opportunity to generate a shift in the collective understanding of legal norms and environmental rights in a similar fashion to that which occurred in the human rights body of law as a result of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights six decades ago. This could initiate a paradigm shift in global culture towards a “human rights-based holistic environmental stewardship for the planet”. The FAO voluntary guidelines on natural resource tenure102 and on supporting small-scale fisheries91 are grounded in human rights principles, and are the first examples of such an approach being applied in fisheries policy. In addition to the embedded normative aspects of equity and justice, we argue that a human right to the environment would form a baseline “net” for governance of the ocean commons, through the inherent potential that such a right provides to address and redress the inequities suffered by individuals and communities exposed to environmental degradation and the unsustainable extraction of natural resources103,104,105.

A shared “information and learning commons” also will be a key feature supporting bottom-up governance processes. The internet has resulted in an entirely new global economy based on many-to-many interactions and vast data flows, fueling the rapid expansion of an information and knowledge commons. Information and communication technologies offer unprecedented potential for improving stewardship of ocean resources and ensuring resilient and productive ecosystems106,107. Yet existing databases are not readily accessible, and the compilation of data from ocean mapping, new marine and remote sensors and local knowledge is limited106. However, international efforts to address this are underway, such as the Ocean Infohub being developed under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission106. Such capability could be harnessed to reinforce a bottom-up ocean knowledge commons, enabling effective responses to climate- and development-related changes in the ocean1,2. Digitalisation hardly featured in the Paris Agreement or UN Agenda 2030, but it is increasingly clear that digital changes are becoming a key driving force in societal transformation, including for the ocean108,109,110,111. A shared information and knowledge commons would make “it possible to scale projects through new coordination mechanisms, which can allow small group dynamics to apply at the global scale. It is, thus, possible to combine ‘flatter’ structures and still operate efficiently on a planetary scale. This has never been the case before”43.

In this way. a digital ocean knowledge commons can evolve into the beating heart of a learning system which feeds back into and reinforces reflexive polycentric governance. Initially this would emerge from collaborations between existing research institutions who share a commitment to an open source knowledge commons. Calls for such a knowledge sharing function are emerging for ocean sectors (e.g. refs. 106,107,112), and an integrated information system would go a long way towards improved governance of the commons. Indeed, without this, there is no operating system to create a learning pattern into the future.

Pre-competitive collaboration and property rights

The final building block of transformed governance to facilitate ocean stewardship is to make ownership generative (see Glossary in Table 1) by ensuring that market mechanisms, pre-competitive collaboration, property and usage rights are aligned with sustainability113. The concept of mobilizing corporations or integrating property rights with stewardship, embedded in this transition pathway, is already evident in the ocean economy.63. A substantial number of ocean industries have recently engaged in a process to advance pre-competitive collaboration for ocean stewardship, based on science, within the auspices of the United Nations Global Compact106. Although this initiative is still very new, it represents an important niche innovation with substantial potential for influencing the governance regime. Such pre-competitive collaboration between business actors and science is further illustrated by the SeaBOS example (Table 2 and Box 4). This initiative is based on a vision that a transition is possible. Participating companies share a definition of ocean stewardship as an adaptive and learning based, collaborative process of responsibility and ethics, aimed to shepherd and safeguard the resilience and sustainability of ocean ecosystems for human well-being. Fisheries management, in general, has seen a growing emphasis on the role, rights and responsibilities of small-scale fishers in stewardship of local resources63. Property rights are currently being integrated with stewardship around the world, as exemplified the Chilean TURF example described in Table 2 and Box 3.

Conclusion: navigating the transition ahead

The ocean is a global commons. This statement now has very specific implications. The ocean, like the Earth’s atmosphere and soils, has made human civilization and life on Earth as we know it possible. However, like the atmosphere and soils, the ocean also faces fundamental threats that could lead to the collapse of critical biophysical functions and major societal disruption. A new system of global governance is required that responds to these pressures and recognizes the ocean as a global commons. Traditional nation-state and market-oriented governance mechanisms are not sufficient. Instead, we could build on a long tradition of polycentric governance arrangements for managing the commons that human civilizations developed long before the modern era of nation-states and markets. What is needed is a new mode of polycentric governance of the ocean-as-commons. This, however, cannot be imposed from above. It needs to build on the transition dynamics already underway at the niche and regime levels. It also must recognize the inherent complexity of the social-ecological ocean system, and facilitate nimble, rapid transformation through shared information and joint knowledge development.

A wide range of niche and regime responses have already arisen in response to the existence of landscape pressures, illustrating that a transition of some sort is already underway in the ocean. A purposeful transition would build on what is already emerging, and draw on a shared vision of ocean stewardship, incorporating a wide range of knowledge inputs, and accompanied by institutional capacity at all scales. This requires polycentric governance, transparency, legitimacy, and accountability, a well-resourced digital commons that connects shared data and learning with local innovations and applications; an environmental right to facilitate environmental justice for the ocean, and integration of stewardship responsibilities with rights to commons resources and spaces.

The current ocean governance system is insufficient for handling the challenges facing the ocean10,114,115, but there are options. We propose complementary mechanisms that would support and empower change. Further research is required to refine the alternatives, understand the complexities of niche- and regime-level innovations, and understand how promising examples can emerge and amplify the transition. History has demonstrated that social, economic and technological systems can and do transform, and that transitions can accelerate and generate impressive dynamics115. A reconfiguration of ocean governance should support a healthy and thriving relationship between humans and the ocean.

Change history

  • 03 September 2020

    An amendment to this paper has been published and can be accessed via a link at the top of the paper.


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HÖ was funded by the Walton Family Foundation (grant 2018-1371), the David and Lucile Packard Foundation (grant 2019-68336), and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (grant GBMF5668.02). MR was supported by gifts from Peter and Helen Bing and Roger and Vicki Sant. This research is adapted from a Blue Paper commissioned by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy entitled “The ocean transition: What to learn from system transitions” [].

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T.B.R., M.R. and M.S. conceived of the topics and wrote the manuscript. E.A., H.Ö., S.G. and P.M. conceived of the topics, provided content for several Boxes, and helped edit the paper.

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Correspondence to Mary Ruckelshaus.

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H.Ö. is leading the scientific efforts associated to the SeaBOS initiative (with funding that is independent from the companies of the initiative).

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Brodie Rudolph, T., Ruckelshaus, M., Swilling, M. et al. A transition to sustainable ocean governance. Nat Commun 11, 3600 (2020).

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