The adoption of UN Convention of the Law of the Sea in 1982 created optimism for indigenous peoples and marginalised coastal communities that they may (re)gain control of, or improve access to, marine resources. However concerns were also raised that opening the seas to industrial development might create threats for traditional users of the sea. Twenty-five years later the potential enclosure of large areas of coastal seas to marine renewable energy development is reigniting debates about marine governance, access and control over marine resources. Case studies in Scotland, Canada, New Zealand and Australia reveal a dynamic tension between: an economic development ‘blue growth’ agenda requiring the creation of private rights in the sea; and socio-political drivers which seek to address historic injustices and increase access to natural resources by indigenous and marginalised coastal communities. As yet there is little evidence of this tension being adequately addressed by emerging institutional frameworks for managing marine resources.