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In June, President Obama made a video announcement at the Our Ocean 2014 Conference, sponsored by the Department of State. He declared, “Like Presidents Clinton and Bush before me, I’m going to use my authority as President to protect some of our most precious marine landscapes just as we do for our mountains and rivers and forests.… [T]he United States is leading the fight to protect the world’s oceans.”

The statement foreshadowed a new executive order which would place a huge swath of the Pacific Ocean under control of the U.S. federal government. According to the Washington Post, the aggressive program is scheduled to begin later this year “after a comment period.” It “could create the world’s largest marine sanctuary and double the area of ocean globally that is fully protected.” Other executive measures would address related issues, some of which would be domestic in scope.

Obama’s stated purpose is to protect the ocean from threats such as pollution, climate change, oil drilling, and overfishing. His executive order will achieve the opposite. Anyone who wishes to protect the ocean should move to privatize it as extensively and as quickly as possible.

America’s designs on water “rights”

According to the Washington Post, the announced executive order would expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument from approximately 87,000 to approximately 782,000 square miles. The authority to do so comes from the obscure but powerful Antiquities Act of 1906, which was intended to protect cultural and historical sites, such as prehistoric Native American settlements. The scope of the act’s application has grown dramatically under Obama. For example, in May, an executive order designated approximately 500,000 acres in New Mexico as a national monument. Much of it was being used as public grazing land.

The area targeted in the Pacific is considered “American” because it is within 200 nautical miles (230 miles) of remote islands and atolls controlled by the United States. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, this gives America the right to determine rules for commercial access, environmental protection, and other management issues.

Domestically, the Obama administration stated the related intention to have the public participating in the nomination of “new marine sanctuaries off U.S. coasts and in the Great Lakes.” Additionally, federal agencies have been asked to develop a wide-reaching program to halt both “seafood fraud” and illegal fishing. The Hill explains, “Obama is forming a presidential task force to combat seafood fraud and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. [Secretary of State John] Kerry will lead the panel along with Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker.”

“Seafood fraud” usually consists of mislabeling a product. One indication of Obama’s determination to prevent it is that his administration has listed the Department of Defense among the federal agencies that will punish seafood fraud.

In economic terms, this means related businesses should prepare for far greater regulation, and consumers should expect the price of fish to soar.

The politics of “marine sanctuaries”

Obama’s announcement undoubtedly hiked his popularity among environmentalists, who constitute a reliable voting block for Democrats (the November elections are nigh).

Internationally, there has recently been a broad push by powerful organizations to “preserve” the oceans. On April 30, the Global Ocean Commission (GOC) issued a news item saying, “At a private audience Co-chair Trevor Manuel presented Pope Francis with the Commission’s vision for stronger high seas governance and protection.… This was an opportunity to discuss the role of the United Nations, governments and the Church to further advance the cause of ocean conservation and management.”

A few days earlier, the World Bank congratulated itself on a “summit that brought together more than 600 ocean stakeholders, including 80 ministers from across the world, ocean science experts, business leaders, philanthropy and heads of international organizations — committed to a set of concrete actions responding to the urgency for restoring productive, resilient oceans that drive broad-based blue growth and deliver food security.”

The summit was the latest in dozens of programs to “save” the oceans connected to the umbrella organization Global Partnership for Oceans (GPO). At its launch in 2012, the GPO consisted of “More than 130 representatives from over 70 governments, civil society organizations, seafood groups, major retail outlets, ocean science bodies, UN agencies and international institutions.”

Obama did not seem to play a role of any significance in these leadership ventures. But, by having the Department of State hold the Our Ocean 2014 Conference in the United States, Obama could announce that “the United States is leading the fight to protect the world’s oceans.”

In case the world media was not interested in that message, the conference included superstar Leonardo DiCaprio, who spoke directly after Obama’s video announcement. Any media drawn by DiCaprio would hear that “the United States is leading the fight.” Even if they did not report Obama’s words, they would report the supportive ones of DiCaprio.

The real solution to preserving the oceans

The international and domestic officials who seek to control the ocean for its own sake may be sincere, but that will not alter the result. They will worsen the situation and impose a huge cost, both financially and in terms of human welfare.

The oceans suffer from what is called a “tragedy of the commons.” This is defined as “an economic problem in which every individual tries to reap the greatest benefit from a given resource. As the demand for the resource overwhelms the supply, every individual who consumes an additional unit directly harms others who can no longer enjoy the benefits.”

This first-come first-served situation creates an incentive for firstcomers to take as much as possible of a valuable public good; it is in each individual’s rational self-interest to overfish. When there are no benefits to maintaining a good, nor costs to abusing it, the incentive is to allow deterioration; it is in each individual’s self-interest to pollute.

The solution is the opposite of government control. The solution is to develop private-property rights in the oceans by allowing individuals to homestead water resources. In short, the solution is privatization.

Homesteading the oceans presents unique but solvable problems. (The idea of “homesteading” is that a person may rightfully gain ownership of an unowned resource by making productive use of it or otherwise, in the Lockean phrasing, “mixing their labor” with it.”) Oil-drilling endeavors are the least problematic. There is no reason to deny title to ocean “land” simply because it is covered with water; regular land is covered with equally fluid air. But oil drillers must be made fully liable for any harm they do to other ocean property.

Fishing communities could homestead the water from which they draw a livelihood. They could do so individually, as a collective with transferable individual shares, or in a dozen other ways. Standards for the scope of the ownership claim would undoubtedly evolve, and quickly so, just as they have evolved for the scope of land that can be claimed. If the form of “fishing” lent itself to containment — for example, farming lobsters or clams — then massive nets could screen in the property.

Endangered species and magnificent reefs could be preserved in the same manner that species and their habitats are preserved in certain areas of Africa. These species are huge tourist draws; profits from nearby resorts hinge on the presence of animals and pristine landscape.

As an alternative, environmentalists might purchase threatened areas and restrict all access to them.

The private ownership of oceans is a relatively unaddressed concept, even within libertarianism. Some solutions seem obvious; unexpected and innovative ones would undoubtedly arise as they have in similar areas, such as the ownership of airwaves.

In terms of preserving the oceans, however, the most important aspect is that the incentives in private ownership are the opposite of those of “the commons.” The incentives are to sustain and maintain a valuable good. In her book Healing Our World, Mary Ruwart observed,

Owners would…be more likely to invest in artificial reefs to bolster the fish population. Whalers could operate only with the permission of the owners, much as hunters must request permission to stalk deer on privately owned land. Ocean owners profit most by making sure that the valuable species in their region are not hunted to extinction.

But what if large parts of the ocean are never suitable for private ownership? Again, in terms of preservation, the possibility may not be significant. A 2011 study by researchers at Stanford University found that “preserving just 4 percent of the ocean could protect crucial habitat for the vast majority of marine mammal species, from sea otters to blue whales.”

The more secure the property rights, the more secure the health of the oceans. The greatest threat to private property is government control, which makes government the greatest threat to oceans — not their salvation. Current attempts to save the oceans are heading in precisely the wrong direction.