Myth 1: Everyone knows You can't buy the ocean.
Fact 1: Lands and resources lying within ocean and coastal waters can often be acquired in fee-simple or less-than fee-simple.
Under some circumstances, the oceans are for sale (in one form or another) and Marine Conservation Agreements (MCAs) can help organizations achieve the transactions. Frequently, however, conservation organizations, management agencies and the general public believe the oceans are not for sale. What is not widely known is that government agencies responsible for managing lands and resources lying within ocean and coastal waters have often sold permanent or temporary interests in these areas for commercial and residential purposes. Private organizations are now taking advantage of these same opportunities for conservation purposes.
- Federal governments lease interests: The U.S. federal government and national governments of other countries often issue or sell leases (or lease-like mechanisms such as concessions, licenses, and permits) for use of resources in their exclusive economic zones of the ocean. Resources such as fish, oil, minerals, gravel, and seaweed are often sold through leasing mechanisms. Several conservation organizations are assessing if these mechanisms can also be used for non-extractive conservation purposes.
- U.S. states sell and lease interests: In the United States, it was once common for state agencies to sell (or grant) fee-simple interests in lands and resources lying below the high tide line. Typically the sales were for interests in lands lying between the high tide line and low tide line (inter-tidal areas), but sales for lands lying below the low tide line (sub-tidal areas) also took place. While the practice of selling fee-simple interests in these lands and resources is not as common today, in some locations, under specific circumstances, it is still possible. What is more common today is the sale of leasing interests (less-than fee-simple interests) in these lands and resources. While leasing interests are typically for a specific period of time and for specific purposes, they can often be quite long in duration (in some cases, in perpetuity) and quite sweeping in scope (preventing all other uses on the site).
- Private owners can sell interests: To the extent that lands and resources lying within ocean and coastal waters are already owned by private entities, they can almost always sell them. Private owners normally have much more flexibility in how they manage and dispose of their ownership interests, making fee-simple and less-than fee-simple acquisitions negotiable. In some cases though, private owners may have historical restrictions on their interests in these lands and resources which can limit their flexibility. For example, in Washington State some submerged lands were granted to private companies for aquaculture purposes and are to revert back to state ownership if the lands are no longer used for such purposes.
- Similar to terrestrial conservation strategies: Acquiring fee-simple and less-than fee-simple interests in lands and resources lying within ocean and coastal waters is similar to the tried-and-true strategies of buying fee-simple to and acquiring conservation easements over upland parcels. These practices have been used successfully by conservation organizations throughout the world and applying these same strategies to ocean and coastal environments is very similar. For example, as of 2006, The Nature Conservancy had protected 117 million acres of land throughout the world since the early 1950s while land trusts had protected nearly 34 million acres in the United States. Much of this protection was through proprietary acquisition of terrestrial areas. Recognizing differences and resultant limitations in land and sea tenure, the success of terrestrial conservation efforts sheds some light on the potential growth that MCAs could achieve.