What is ocean governance?

Ocean governance can be described as the conduct of the policy, agreements and the affairs regarding the world's ocean. In other words, it means the management of its use and all its resources in ways that (is supposed to) keep our oceans healthy, safe and resilient.

Jacob Surland

What is important to understand is that the oceans are managed on different scales, national, regional and international scale which makes it quite complex. First, you have the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea also called UNCLOS that shapes the legal backbone of international law for the sea.

Considered to be the “Constitution for the oceans”, UNCLOS defines the rights and responsibilities of States in their use of seas and oceans of the world establishing a legal order “which will facilitate international communication, and will promote the peaceful uses of the seas and oceans, the equitable and efficient utilisation of their resources, the conservation of their living resources, and the study, protection and preservation of the marine environment” according to the subdivision of oceans and seas in areas under national jurisdiction or beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.

UNCLOS defines a number of maritime zones subject to the national jurisdiction measured from a define baseline, usually the low-water mark. The key areas of national jurisdiction are; internal waters, territorial sea (0 to 12 Nautical Miles) and contiguous zone (12 to 24 Nautical Miles), Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ (12 to 200 Nautical Miles) and the continental shelf (12 to 200 Nautical Miles or Outer Edge of Continental Margin). Marine areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) include the water column and seabed of the high seas. They are not managed or controlled by just one nation which means they are a shared international responsibility. From the sustainable management of the fisheries resources to the conservation of the biodiversity, those areas are extremely challenging to manage. Today, more than 60% of the oceans are outside the borders of national jurisdiction.

Riccardo Pravettoni, GRID-Arendal (

To be effective, the UNCLOS is supported and complemented by a large number of regional and international conventions and agreements codifying international rights and responsibilities at all level. They aim “to apply the principles of UNCLOS in various domains, such as fisheries resource management, combating pollution, protecting marine species and habitats...” and also by several regional and international institutions with a mandate on the marine environment to regulate the activities taking place at sea and protect it.


The International Maritime Organization (IMO) for example is considered to be one of the most important aspects of governance particularly with the MARPOL convention which for example, led to a decrease in oil pollution. This institution works for the development of international maritime law and its main role is to create a universal effective regulatory framework for the shipping industry. At another level, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) through its Regional Seas Programme aims to protect oceans and seas by promoting the use of marine resources in sustainable manners and respectful of the marine environment.

The Regional Seas Conventions and Action Plans is the only existing legal framework for protecting the oceans and seas at the regional level. The UNEP also created The Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities which is the only intergovernmental mechanism addressing land-based pollution.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), with its Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), tries to better understand and manage the resources of the ocean and coastal areas by promoting international cooperation but also by coordinating multiple programmes in “marine research, observation systems, hazard mitigation and capacity development”. Not to mention the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the International Seabed Authority (ISA) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) or the “Convention on Biological Diversity” (CBD) and the “Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species” (CITES), etc.

I think you can see the bigger picture here, the framework of ocean governance is very complicated to understand due to its fragmentation but also very difficult to apply which is definitely one of the many reasons why we have reached such a critical situation regarding the ocean’s health. All the different instruments of ocean governance don’t seem to work well together, mostly because of the lack of coordination between them. Yet the essential rules are there and we must find the technical, economic and human means to apply them but also to make them respected.


References. “The Ocean revealed”, CNRS, Edition 2017 “Oceans and the Law of the Sea”

“A new chapter for the high seas?” International ocean governance: an agenda for the future of our oceans United Nations Convention on the Law Of the Sea Ocean and Climate Platform

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