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Human Engagement with the Sea: A Shifting Discourse

Tanya J. King and Gary Robinson 

World Oceans Day (8 June) is a day for humanity to celebrate the ocean. In this spirit, we are delighted to feature an excerpt from the introduction to AT HOME ON THE WAVES: Human Habitation of the Sea from the Mesolithic to Today, edited by Tanya J. King and Gary Robinson.

For some forty years of Western thought, the nature of the relationship between people and the ocean has been under increasing scrutiny. Key reasons for this scrutiny include the intense industrialization of commercial fisheries since the 1970s, the expansion of oil and gas exploration, the development of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982) (which seeks to protect the marine resources of sovereign nations from outsiders), and the “awakening” of those in the West to “environmental” concerns. Under discussion has been the rightful place of humans in the marine environment: How should people engage with the sea? What, if anything, should be extracted? What limits and allowances should be imposed in order to ensure people engage with the ocean properly? The answers have been varied and often contentious, reflecting the myriad ways in which people engage with, and attribute meaning to, the ocean. As such, nation-state restrictions and affordances have been applied to individuals, corporations, firms, categories of people, and even to the personification of “the environment” itself, each group seeking to establish that its way of valuing the ocean is best. As Castree (2010, 1731) explains, “Struggles over nature are always already struggles over meanings.”  

Examples of such “struggles” include those between commercial and recreational fishers (Kearney 2002; Cooke and Cowx 2006), where competition for a shared resource, as well as the perception of incongruous ideological motivations, can prompt antagonisms on the water as well as in the political realm (Voyer et al. 2017). Likewise, there are heterogeneous views on how the resource should be used and by whom within the angling sector itself (e.g., Arlinghaus et al. 2007), as well as among those focused on commercial fishing communities (Smith, Sainsbury, and Stevens 1999; Beddington, Agnew, and Clark 2007; Hilborn 2007). The dynamics between commercial fishers and indigenous resource users (whether commercial or subsistence) can also be characterized by disagreements over who has the right to engage the environment in a particular way (Barber 2010; McCormack 2012; Breslow 2014). Neither commercial, recreational, or traditional fishers have been particularly successful in asserting their rights to the ocean over those claimed by powerful multinational corporations such as BP (formerly British Petroleum), who supply the world with oil and gas (Cicin-Sain and Tiddens 1989; McCrea-Strub et al. 2011; Pinkerton and Davis 2015; Pomeroy, Hall-Arber, and Conway 2015). Of course, those who advocate for “the environment” may argue that extractive resource use of any kind—by fishers, oil and gas companies, wind and tidal energy developers, bioprospectors, or beachcombers—is incommensurate with the preservation ethic of nonextraction (Drengson and Devall 2010; King 2005, 356).  

Underlying these attempts to control human engagement with the sea has been an assumption that it is possible for humans to remove themselves from the ocean, a perspective reinforced by the almost exclusively terrestrial or coastal experiences of humans. As King explains (2005, 353): “Most people experience the ocean in absentia. Unchallenged by conflicting experiences, the public is potentially able to imagine an ocean ecosystem without humans.” This “imagined” environment informs the expectations that people and their governments have of the human-marine relationship; conflicts can arise when incongruous meanings converge to challenge the lived experiences of diverse user-groups (King 2005).  

It is in the context of such struggles, and public discourses that seek to limit—or even halt—human interactions with the ocean, that we present this volume. In these pages, we challenge the notion that the sea is not the proper domain of people. Acheson has stated: “The sea is a dangerous and alien environment, and one in which man is poorly equipped to survive. It is a realm that man enters only with the support of artificial devices . . . and then only when weather and sea conditions allow” (Acheson 1981, 276). However, people do live at sea, and with far more domesticity and less drama than Acheson’s oft-quoted passage suggests. The case studies we present range from industrialized commercial fisheries in Iceland, Australia, and the US to combined commercial and subsistence focused ocean-goers in Greenland to car-carrier employees from the Philippines. Evidence of past, intimate associations with the ocean is provided by archaeological accounts from the UK, South America, and Australia. Proposing a marine environment without human interaction ignores the evidence that humans have a long-spanning and rich relationship with the ocean. 

About the Book

Human Habitation of the Sea from the Mesolithic to Today
Edited by Tanya J. King and Gary Robinson

At Home on the Waves sets out what it aims to do and contributes to the overarching theme of the centrality of marine environments to people around the world. Those researching the topic will appreciate the numerous examples from anthropological and archaeological perspectives and the range of geographical locations…that render the book worth reading.” • Maritime Archaeology

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Berghahn Journals

Celebrate World Oceans Day with Environment and Society‘s first Open Access special volume, Oceans, in the Berghahn Open Anthro collection.

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