Beyond the shoreline

How three women are making waves in ocean law and policy

The Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources & Security at UOW is at the forefront of ocean law and policy, maritime security, and marine resources management. Meet three of the researchers who are making waves behind the scenes.

Dr Sarah Lothian

It’s not the usual trajectory you’d expect a lawyer to take – from navigating the complexities of family law in private practice to researching and teaching the intricacies of the law of the sea to university students – but it was the path Dr Sarah Lothian took and it led her to finding her purpose.

“When I was in high school I always thought I’d go into medicine and become a paediatrician,” Dr Lothian said. “But I’m a sensitive soul and knew I wouldn’t last long.”

It was only when one of Dr Lothian’s teachers suggested she join the school debating team that she discovered her love of constructing arguments and the critical thinking it entailed. Her teacher believed law could be a good fit and Dr Lothian’s journey to the Bar began.

“After I finished university, I worked as a solicitor at a mid-tier law firm for five years and specialised in family law. While I enjoyed it, after time it took an emotional toll and I decided to look at other areas.”

Having completed a Masters in Family Law (2012) and being called to the Bar of New South Wales in 2013, Dr Lothian made a life-changing decision to move to the UK and complete her second Masters in Maritime Law (2016) at the University of Nottingham.

Dr Sarah Lothian. Photo: Michael Gray

“It was a huge change but I’d always been interested in the law of the sea as an undergraduate and I thought it would be more interesting to specialise in maritime law,” Dr Lothian said. “Once I started I knew I’d found my niche.”

While Dr Lothian was studying at the University of Nottingham a mentor, Professor Sarah Dromgoole, introduced Dr Lothian to the BBNJ negotiation process (also known as the High Seas Treaty) and this later became the focus of a PhD she started once she moved back to Sydney in 2017.

“I did my PhD under the supervision of Professor Tim Stephens at the University of Sydney and I explored the package deal elements of the BBNJ negotiations and also looked at it from a historical perspective,” Dr Lothian said.

Dr Lothian’s thesis formed the basis of her research monograph “Marine Conservation and International Law: Legal Instruments for Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction” which was published by Routledge in 2022 and is available through UOW’s library.

Not long after Dr Lothian submitted her thesis, she joined the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources & Security (ANCORS) at the University of Wollongong (UOW). It’s here that Dr Lothian says she found her purpose.

“At ANCORS I get to do the two things I love most - teaching and research,” Dr Lothian said.

“I feel like I’ve found my purpose with teaching. When I was at the Bar I loved the advocacy side of the work, I loved appearing in court and I loved researching for briefs.

“In academia it’s the best of both worlds and I can pass on the knowledge I have gained to others, I really love bringing the practical perspective of working in law to students.”

All three academics took different career paths in their journey to ANCORS. Photo: Michael Gray

Dr Lothian has now been working in the BBNJ space for nine years, so it’s an understatement to say she was delighted in June 2023 when the BBNJ Agreement was formally adopted by member states of the United Nations.

“This instrument signifies a pivotal turning point in the protection of our deep ocean environment and provides an armoury of conservation tools, strategies and mechanisms,” Dr Lothian said.

“After following the entire process of these negotiations for almost a decade I started talking to my ANCORS colleagues about how different regimes will interact with this new instrument.

“It’s an interesting legal question to look at and we’ve decided to organise a workshop that draws expertise from a number of national, sectoral and international organisations to explore this new chapter in maritime law.”

ANCORS will host a BBNJ Workshop: Regime Interaction under the BBNJ Agreement at Innovation Campus from 7-10 May 2024. The Workshop has been organised in conjunction with four international organisations, the Centre for International Law (CIL) of the National University of Singapore, the Norwegian Centre for the Law of the Sea (NCLOS), the Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology (KIOST) and the Nippon Foundation – University of Edinburgh Ocean Voices Programme.

The Workshop will provide an important opportunity to bring leading academics, international lawyers, policymakers and scientists together in the same room to engage in productive and fruitful discussions on the BBNJ Agreement and its future legal implications.

“We’re excited about this workshop, we want it to be interactive and we’ve allowed a lot of time for engagement and discussion,” Dr Lothian said.

“We’ve also dedicated some time at the workshop for early career researchers to present their work and have feedback from an international audience, which isn’t an opportunity that’s always available.”

Providing opportunities to students and early career academics is a role Dr Lothian is passionate about and she is grateful to be in a position to provide support and encouragement to all students.

“I encourage all new law graduates to be open to any and all opportunities that come their way. I received good advice in private practice which was to say yes to everything, within reason, and you can always try it and back out afterwards if it’s not right for you.

“You also don’t have to go into private practice just because you have a law degree. There are so many doors that can open in other places – look at where I am!”

Associate Professor Aline Jaeckel

Saying yes to opportunities as a student was a common theme for internationally recognised seabed mining expert Associate Professor Aline Jaeckel.  

“I was lucky enough to do three university degrees in three different countries and was able to use my studies to travel the world,” Associate Professor Jaeckel said.

After completing her undergraduate law degree in 2009, Associate Professor Jaeckel went on to do a Masters (2011) and then PhD (2015) in International Law.

“I was drawn to international law because it combines law with politics and psychology. Diplomatic negotiations between states are not dissimilar to negotiations between individuals,” she explains.

Associate Professor Jaeckel’s thesis was on the International Seabed Authority and marine environmental protection, a focus that has remained steadfast throughout her career.

Associate Professor Aline Jaeckel. Photo: Michael Gray

In addition to a stint working for the Research Institute for Sustainability in Potsdam, Germany, on two multi-disciplinary projects that focused on seabed mining, Associate Professor Jaeckel has worked in academia at two Sydney-based universities before joining ANCORS in 2022.

“More than 80 per cent of our planet is covered in ocean and around half of the Earth is ocean that lies beyond the jurisdiction of any state,” Associate Professor Jaeckel explains. “In other words, around half of our planet is our global ocean commons. It is a vast and very import ecosystem that we need to protect and care for.”

The deep ocean is home to important and very diverse ecosystems and houses significant mineral resources, including copper, manganese and cobalt, which are used in electronics and many other industries. Some companies and states want to start mining these minerals on the deep ocean floor. But because most of these minerals occur on the seabed beyond the jurisdiction of any state, they are legally defined as the ‘common heritage of humankind’.

Associate Professor Jaeckel says that means these minerals belong to all of us and states have decided, back in the 1970s, to manage these minerals collectively. This can be seen as an experiment in collective natural resources management.

“Normally, a government has rights over its natural resources. But because these resources occur in areas beyond national jurisdiction, they are managed collectively through an international organisation, called the International Seabed Authority,” Associate Professor Jaeckel said.

The international expert believes the BBNJ Agreement will have direct implications for how seabed mining and other ocean industries are regulated.

“Not only do the high seas and deep ocean generate significant ecosystem services we all depend on, but they also have cultural significance and there are magnificent creatures and countless species that we have not even discovered yet. The BBNJ treaty will help protect this biodiversity by regulating the way humans manage the ocean,” Associate Professor Jaeckel said.

“Most importantly, the BBNJ Agreement could offer a way to return the ocean back to good health. We have polluted, overfished, and overexploited the ocean for too long. It is time we focus on what marine ecosystems need to recover and thrive.”

Dr Kristine Dalaker

The sunlit North Wollongong building that is the home of ANCORS is worlds away from the far north of frosty Norway, but it’s here, just a stone’s throw from Fairy Meadow beach, that Dr Kristine Dalaker has found herself.

While many people would cite Wollongong’s beaches and warmer weather for such a big move, Dr Dalaker says her relocation to Australia in July 2023 was about ANCORS and the difference she could make.

“When I read the call for this position, I believed that I could, in my own small way, have an impact. Whether that be through my teaching, research or capacity building efforts,” Dr Dalaker said.

“Oceans are absolutely critical to life on our planet, and they are under serious threat. As a trained advocate, I work to give oceans a voice through the law.”

Dr Dalaker’s passion for the law of the sea and her path to working in ocean governance wasn’t a straightforward one. She grew up and went to university in the United States, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts (1992) from the University of Richmond, with a double major in political science and economics.

Dr Kristine Dalaker. Photo: Michael Gray

After this, Dr Dalaker decided to go to law school and complete her Juris Doctor degree (1997) with one primary goal in mind.

“I wanted to learn to think like a lawyer. I knew law would give me the broad foundation I needed to pursue a number of different careers.”

Despite being unsure about practising law, Dr Dalaker ended up practicing as a corporate lawyer. She began her career at Mezzullo & McCandlish (now McCandlish Holton) in Richmond, Virginia.

“I had the honour of working with one of the firm’s partners, US Senator Tim Kaine, on his first political campaigns,” Dr Dalaker explains.

“At that time, I feared that he would be jaded by the political process. My fear was obviously misplaced. He has gone off to do great things, most notably as Hillary Clinton’s choice to be Vice-President.”

After setting up strong foundations and connections in Virginia, it was a rapid change of pace when Dr Dalaker followed her fiancé’s career to Japan.

“I had no Japanese language skills or knowledge of Japan but through contacts and lots of research I was able to move my career forward by becoming a Foreign Legal Associate at a top firm in Tokyo,” Dr Dalaker said.

“I worked as a Foreign Legal Associate at Aoki, Christensen & Nomoto (now part of Baker McKenzie). I was the only woman, the only foreigner, and worked mainly in capital markets and in other corporate matters.

“Living and working outside of my culture as a woman, as a minority, and barely speaking the language was humbling and brought about a great deal of learning.”

This living and working environment was extremely challenging and set Dr Dalaker up for the next chapter of her life which involved living and working in several different countries including Singapore, China, and Belgium.

Dr Dalaker pursued French and Norwegian language courses while she was in Belgium and became increasingly involved in writing and editing. This experience served her well when she eventually moved back to Singapore and was recommended for a position at the Centre for International Law (CIL) at the National University of Singapore. Initially employed as the Part-time Editor, Dr Dalaker was promoted to Associate Director a short time later.

“My work at the Centre for International Law sparked my passion for the law of the sea. They supported my research interest in this area and later sponsored me to attend the Rhodes Academy for Oceans Law and Policy in Greece,” Dr Dalaker said.

“As luck would have it – it was also through my work at the Centre for International Law that I came to know of my past employer – the Norwegian Centre for the Law of the Sea (NCLOS) in Tromsø, Norway – through a jointly organised conference on the Governance of Arctic Shipping.

“When a PhD opportunity became available at NCLOS, I jumped at the opportunity and moved to Norway. I successfully defended my PhD in April 2022. The focus of my PhD project was the BBNJ Agreement.”

Dr Dalaker says areas beyond national jurisdiction, although vast and distant, underpin life on our planet - from food security to climate regulation to ecosystem services and cultural significance.

“My aim is to educate people about the importance of these areas and make this expansive global commons a local concern.”

It makes sense that the upcoming BBNJ Workshop at ANCORS is front of mind for Dr Dalaker, who hopes to see the event promote further collaboration amongst the ocean centres in attendance.

“Although the oceans are vast, the law of the sea community is small in comparison. If we are going to find solutions for the health of our oceans, we cannot merely sit within our institutional silos but must reach out and work with our networks and connections.”