Whose ocean?

Exploring ocean stewardship through an international assembly

The ocean is crucial to life and climate, but its voice is barely heard in (international) law and policy decisions. While the UN explicitly speaks about “our ocean”, it is completely unclear who the “our” refers to. Does the ocean belong to humanity? To states? Or does the ocean belong to itself? To the organisms (non-human animals, plants, and microbes) that live in it? Or to the materiality that makes the ocean (water, rocks, elements)?

Erik van Sebille and Siren Rühs from IMAU participate in the highly interdisciplinary “Whose Ocean?” project, funded by a Pathways to Sustainability Signature Grant. Inspired by the mock court on the representation of the North Sea and the Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes, the goal is to hold an assembly in 2025 to propose a communal relationship doctrine for the stewardship of the ocean. Together with the Embassy of the North Sea, Casco Art and three artists, Xandra van der Eijk, Sheng Wen Lo and Müge Yilmaz , they will collectively explore how the ocean can be meaningfully represented at international and national fora such as courts of law and in diplomacy.

“Working with artists and colleagues from the faculties of Humanities and Law is really exciting”, says Erik van Sebille. “This project is quite far outside my normal comfort zone, but it inspires me greatly. In my normal work at IMAU I simulate how ocean currents move stuff like plastic and plankton around the ocean, but I don’t often have the time to consider the societal implications. It’s refreshing to think on a bit more meta-level about our responsibility for the ocean.”

Preceding the assembly, a series of meetings and events are underway. Initiatives like a reading group aiming to establish a shared vocabulary, crucial for interdisciplinary collaboration. Additionally, discussions surrounding the question "Whose Ocean?" at the National Ocean Sciences Conference aim to ignite conversations among experts across the Netherlands.

The consortium has recently received additional funding from the Dutch Creative Industry Fund, to support the design of the assembly. As Thijs Middeldorp, director of Embassy of the North Sea, put it: “Many of the scientific questions in the Whose Ocean program are also about representation in the sense of imagining. That’s why we’re very happy that these three designers will collaborate in the research and design of the Assembly.”

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