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One Global Ocean, Our Shared Responsibility: On the Challenges of Ocean Governance
☀ Precious Denzel Navarro
🗓 June 1, 2019

  • Overexploitation of our oceans is already bringing great harm and irreversible damages to the marine environment.

  • Effective ocean governance would require an internationally‐agreed set of rules and action plans, principles-based regional initiatives, and integrated national policies for such a framework to succeed.

The ocean is indispensable in addressing many of the world’s imminent challenges. Healthy oceans are essential to humankind, both as a pillar of global food security, and as an engine of economic growth. Nonetheless, while our seas hold immense potential for society’s development, they are also under increasing risk of degradation due to enhanced economic activity and the destructive effects of climate change. The resources in the sea are finite, with certain fish populations, for example, already classified as overexploited due to unrestrained fishing through the years.

We use the term “commons” to describe resources which are freely available for public use but limited in supply. The overexploitation of our maritime commons, such as through illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and the consequent discharge of pollutants into the sea, bring great harm and irreversible damage to an already fragile marine environment. Protecting global commons such as the oceans entails cross-sectoral collaboration among its stakeholders in the maritime sector. This ambitious plan of global ocean governance would be a futile exercise if only a limited number of countries capitalize on its potential, while others continue to aimlessly exploit the marine environment for their self-serving ends.

Ocean governance: a fragmented concept under the UNCLOS?

By far, the most comprehensive attempt to govern the world’s oceans is the formulation of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, despite being in effect for three decades, critics point out that the UNCLOS is ineffective as it lacks legally-binding instruments – the document only contains “soft laws” with no real enforcement mechanisms. In particular, some parties often disregard its recommendations on ocean governance and fall short of coordinating their policies across sovereign jurisdictions when it does not serve their national interests. Much as the UNCLOS represents a remarkable achievement in international law, this complex treaty and its ocean governance regimes are not without serious limitations.

The UNCLOS’ zonal approach to ocean governance divides the various parts of the oceans into jurisdictional zones: territorial sea, exclusive economic zone (EEZ), continental shelf, and high seas. While these maritime zones determine the rights and obligations of state parties, this may be a major contributing factor to states’ fragmented approach because of such delineations. To illustrate, fish populations do not recognize boundaries as they move across seas. Toxic chemicals travel with sea currents far beyond the extent of an EEZ. Moreover, manifestations of climate change such as ocean acidification affect all marine areas equally and across all zones , regardless of which state has jurisdiction over affected areas. The UNCLOS falls short in considering the greater consequences of the transboundary nature of these maritime security issues, and their effect on all state parties and the high seas.

The Convention also does not spell out a “sufficiently coherent obligation to steward” marine resources. While Article 192 of the UNCLOS cites states’ duty to “protect and preserve the marine environment”, it does not detail how marine resources are to be used, nor determine, for instance, fishing quotas, leading to the collapse of domestic fisheries. The “too general” character of the Convention leaves its provisions open to wide interpretation such as granting states unhampered authority in their respective EEZs. Due also to the lack of initiative, states struggle to craft their national policies which acknowledge the transborder nature of maritime issues – from transnational crimes, protection of depleting fish stocks, and establishment of regulations for offshore gas and oil drilling. It is likewise of no help that increased cooperation among State Parties is inhibited due to issues of overlapping or contested sovereignty over the oceans.

The UNCLOS also maintains a delicate balance vis-à-vis states’ economic interests. Article 193 provides states with “the right to exploit their natural resources pursuant to their environmental policies and in accordance with their duty to protect and preserve the environment”. The maximum sustainable yield concept (which pertains to the highest possible yield that can be routinely taken from a stock without significant effect in the reproduction process ) in Article 119 supports this strong economic dimension of the UNCLOS.

Furthermore, despite the multitude of UNCLOS-attached bodies, the effective governance of the oceans continues to experience implementation problems. For one, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which lays down the rules for international commercial shipping, is relatively slow in enacting policies that respond to other maritime issues despite its success in decreasing ship pollution. This includes ballast water discharge and transport of invasive species from one part of the world to another. Recourse to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), on the other hand, is only as reliable as member states’ consent to be bound by its judgments. Moreover, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which is responsible for the use and distribution of raw materials on the sea floor, suffers from intense pressure to favor the interests large commercial entities. Ultimately, the refusal of some states to recognize the UNCLOS and its attendant regimes undermines its potential as the world’s main framework for ocean governance.

Need for a holistic and integrated approach

Effective ocean governance requires an internationally‐agreed set of rules and action plans, principles-based regional initiatives, and integrated national policies for such a framework to succeed. Notwithstanding, despite its limitations, the UNCLOS provides room for the development and evolution of this envisioned ocean governance framework. The most critical step begins with the serious political will of all stakeholders to follow through with initiatives promoting this approach to ocean management. An “integrated, precautionary, and ecosystem-based” approach is important to arrive at a common consensus despite varying interests. More importantly, this entails cross-sectoral collaboration that is guided by sound scientific knowledge of the ocean’s ecosystems and the sustainable use of the marine environment. Nations must seek a common ground towards informed stewardship and innovative use of global maritime resources through national and international legal frameworks that treat the world’s oceans as a shared cause.


1 World Ocean Review. “Sustainable use of our oceans – making ideas work.” 2015. Web. 29 April 2019.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Council on Foreign Relations. “The global oceans regime.” 2013. Web. 29 April 2019.
5 Supra note 1.
6 Ibid.
7 Tladi, Dire. Ocean governance: A fragmented regulatory framework. 2011. Web. 03 May 2019.
8 Barnes, Richard. “The Convention on the Law of the Sea: An effective framework for domestic fisheries conservation?” The Law of the Sea: Progress and Prospects. Eds. David Freestone, Richard Barnes & David M. Ong. Oxford University Press, 2006.
9 Supra note 1.
10 Supra note 7.
11 Ibid
12 Supra note 4.
13 Supra note 7.
14 Ricker, William. “Computation and Interpretation of Biological Statistics of Fish Populations.” Ottawa: Department of the Environment, Fisheries and Marine Service, 1975.
15 Supra note 7.
16 Supra note 4.
17 Ibid.
18 Pyc, Dorota. “Global ocean governance.” International Journal on Marine Navigation and Safety of Sea Transportation, 10.1, 159-162, 2016. TransNav, DOI: 10.12716/1001.10.01.18.
19 Supra note 7.
20 Supra note 18.
21 Ibid.



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