Shipping, the Pacific

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Shipping, the Pacific

The Pacific is the world's largest and deepest ocean, occupying one-third of the earth's surface. The countries along the western coast of North and South America have links in a North Pacific route with Japan and China, and in a South Pacific route with Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, and southern Asia. Over half the world's merchant fleet capacity and more than one-third of the world's ships sail through straits between the Indian and Pacific oceans. The chief Pacific ports include those on the U.S. West Coast and the Chinese coast, as well as those in Tokyo-Yokohama, Japan; Manila, Philippines; and Sydney, Australia. The protection of these trade routes through Pacific waters has greatly affected the lives of Pacific Islanders.

There are about twenty thousand islands in the Pacific Ocean, and there has been continuous trade among Pacific Islanders since native settlement. Many of these original familial and ceremonial exchanges among Pacific Islanders are active today, connecting island-based populations with diaspora communities in the Americas and elsewhere who return cash remittances for the continuance of communal systems back home.

The potential of such early nineteenth-century industries as whaling and sandalwood were quickly exploited by Western countries and gave way to plantations and the establishment of coaling stations for shipping routes. It was the search for Pacific routes to Asia and Australia that prompted the United States to establish its hold on the great natural harbors at Pearl River in Hawaii and Pago Pago Bay in the Samoan Islands. Both were strategically mapped and explored in 1839 by a U.S. expedition led by the American naval officer Charles Wilkes (1798–1877).

Pandemics of Western diseases had greatly diminished the native populations of the Pacific islands by the mid to late nineteenth century. Missionaries from Europe and the Americas, who inevitably followed in the wake of these diseases while proselytizing Western monotheism as the best protection from them, exploited the much-weakened condition of the islanders by claiming their lands. Their actions eventually led to the takeover of many Pacific island nations by the United States and other Western nations.

U.S. naval strategists were inspired by the theory of sea power as a key to world power advanced by Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840–1914) in his 1890 book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783. In this work, Mahan listed three key elements to sea power: "production, with the necessity of exchanging products, shipping, whereby the exchange is carried on, and colonies, which facilitate and enlarge the operations of shipping and tend to protect it by multiplying points of safety" (chap. 1). Following Mahan's advice, the U.S. Navy later based part of its Pacific Fleet in Hawaii. By the twenty-first century, most of the transpacific sea-lanes passed through the waters of the Hawaiian Islands, including a great deal of the drug traffic from Asia to the United States.

While international law guarantees foreign ships the right of passage through the waters of island nations, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which went into effect in 1994, established "exclusive economic zones" within 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers, 230 miles) from each country's shoreline. Pacific island nations control undersea resources, primarily fishing and seabed mining, within these zones.

see also Exploration, the Pacific; Indigenous Responses, the Pacific.


Epeli Hau'ofa, ed. A New Oceania: Rediscovering Our Sea of Islands. Suva, Fiji: School of Social and Economic Development, University of the South Pacific, 1993.

Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783. Boston: Little, Brown, 1890. Available from Project Gutenberg at

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. UN Office of Legal Affairs, Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. Available from