People used to think that the sea’s bounty was infinite. Looking across the vast ocean, it was hard for any single fisherman to believe they could be contributing to the loss of species.
Hugo Grotius, commonly referred to as the founder of natural resources law, described the inexhaustible nature of the ocean:
“The sea is common to all, because it is so limitless that it cannot become a possession of any one, and because it is adapted for the use of all, whether we consider it from the point of view of navigation or of fisheries” (Grotius 1916)
Now by some estimates 90% of the world’s fisheries are overharvested and there is a growing realization that the ocean cannot provide infinite amounts of fish to support a growing global population.
The concept hasn’t yet applied to other aspects of marine conservation, however. A perfect example is the amount of pollutants in the ocean that are often dismissed as a problem due to the fact that they quickly get swept from the source out to a vast sea, where it is dispersed beyond the problematic threshold.
First problem with this concept is that many pollutants, especially those whose negative impacts have recently been described, can have devastating effects at miniscule concentrations. Examples include pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and some heavy metals.
The second problem with the dilution solution is that with substances that take a long time to degrade such as plastics and metals, each tiny contribution can add up to cause fairly large impacts. Since the ocean is the final resting place for many pollutants, they aggregate a growing global population’s bad behavior.
For a couple of other good descriptions of the marine pollution problem see MarineBio Blog, an action statement by Montana River Action, and an article in Earth Island Journal.
~Bluegrass Blue Crab
Grotius, H. 1916. De jur praedae.