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International Environmental Law 101: Healing the Ocean


International Environmental Law 101 is a series that will dive into the manifold dimensions of preserving the environment from human destruction and economic development. The main objective of these articles is to provide a comprehensible grasp of the institutions, agreements, and principles which fight against climate change, wildlife extinction, and contamination, and foster sustainable practices.

International Environmental Law 101 will be divided into the following chapters:

1. International Environmental Law 101: How the Silent Spring Ignited the Environmental Movement

2. International Environmental Law 101: A Regime of Principle

3. International Environmental Law 101: The Decision Makers

4. International Environmental Law 101: A Map of Environmental Agreements

5. International Environmental Law 101: The Case of Temperature

6. International Environmental Law 101: The Transition to Sustainable Development

7. International Environmental Law 101: Healing the Ocean

8. International Environmental Law 101: What will the Future Bring

The Ocean covers about 70% of the Earth’s surface. It produces more than half of the world’s oxygen and it is the main driver of carbon absorbance and climate regulation. It harbours marine wildlife, which is not only a dominant source of food for humankind but also astonishing and formidable in its own right. More than 3 billion people around the world are economically reliant on professional activities related to the ocean, which means that half of the global population’s livelihoods are dependent on it. (World Economic Forum, 2021). Transport services, recreation services, energy production, the food industry, and the atmosphere are sustained by it. In spite of its many benefits, however, the protection of the marine environment and marine biodiversity has been overlooked for decades. Ever since profound evidence of the ocean’s environmental degradation was brought to light, the world’s reaction has been slow, reluctant, and off the mark.

This article will first explain the causes of the current ocean degradation, before then illustrating the legal mechanisms in place to challenge them.

Samaras N. (2021). Seahorse clinging to a face mask, taken in Stratoni in northern Greece, was nominated in the conservation category [photo]. Sky News (1)

The main challenges and causes of degradation are polluting land-based activities, over-exploitation of resources, and alteration of the marine habitat. Activities on land are a major driver of ocean pollution. Industrial, agricultural and municipal wastewaters are transported through the sewer system into the ocean. Their high proportions of organic pollutants, nutrients, oils, and litter are extremely toxic and altering for the ocean habitat. The oil industry’s marine mining and drilling rigs are a point of concern. The extraction of marine minerals has proven to be a hazardous process over the years and is not immune to accidents and pollution of the explored areas (World Ocean Review, 2014).

Similar to the climate, the most severe cause of ocean pollution is carbon dioxide. The ocean functions as a carbon sink - absorbing more carbon emissions released in the atmosphere than it produces - and it has absorbed approximately a third of the industrial carbon emissions. Climate has been evidently impacted by it, but the ocean is also not unchanged. The carbon dioxide absorbed has increased its acidity levels, posing a great threat to marine wildlife and coastal habitats. Acidification is a term used to describe the decrease inside the ocean of oxygen, which is a crucial component capable of harbouring marine life (World Economic Forum, 2022).

Eutrophication - the result of excess nutrients entering the coastal environments due to human activities such as agriculture, aquaculture, and the livestock industry - is also a cause of acidification. The unwanted nutrients produce bacteria which in turn lower the pH levels and harm the fish. It is a known fact that fertilizers are making the ocean inhospitable. In 2008, there existed about 400 areas of water that could not support marine life because of their low levels of oxygen. In 2019, the dead zones, as they are called, have been increased to 700 (UN Statistics Division, 2021.)

As you Sow (2021). Ocean Plastics [photo]. (2)

Another major pollutant - and the most well-known - is plastic. It enters the ocean through sewers or, more often, river waters. Estimates suggest that there are 250,000 tons of plastic waste currently in the ocean. To put the number into perspective, about 367,000 tons of plastic were produced in 2020 (Statista, 2021). Only 9% of plastic produced has been recycled. In its 2016 report, the MacArthur Foundation predicted that by 2050 the amount of plastic discarded in the ocean will weigh more than its fish stocks. Areas that rely heavily on the tourism industry, like the Mediterranean Sea, face an even larger problem of plastic pollution (World Economic Forum, 2021). Plastic debris can be ingested by wildlife and, for a chain of events, by humans when seafood is consumed. If that does not occur, it will dissolve after the 400-year mark and release polluting chemicals inside the marine environment.

The over-exploitation of the global marine resources reservoirs is the most compelling point of concern. Fishing is deemed over-fishing when the harvesting of fish stocks moves at a higher pace than the fish replenishment. Over-fishing is a practice that plagues particularly developing countries that rely on the fishing industry to sustain their livelihoods, but the lack of monitoring and managing the fish stocks is a universal problem. According to the Global Food and Agriculture Organization, the majority of marine fishing banks have already been discovered and exploited at a global scale, while 25% of that global amount is overfished and depleted, pushed beyond sustainability standards and biological limits (WWF, n. d.).

Overfishing leaves the marine environment off balance. It is in fact unable to repopulate properly at its own pace and process and this will result in a lower amount of fish captured in the future. For the human communities and the wildlife depending on fish as their primary food intake, food security is weakened and not guaranteed. Economic growth in the industry will be slowly halted if measures of resource conservation and sustainable management are not taken. It is also important to note that fishing is another activity that releases carbon into the atmosphere and affects the climate (Conserve Energy Future, 2020).

Fillon L. (2019). In 2017, global catches topped 92 billion tonnes, more than four times the amount fished in 1950, according to the United Nations. [photo] Phys.Org (3)

All of these challenges are regulated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Adopted in 1982 at Montego Bay, Jamaica, it is the most important global ocean agreement that made headways in addressing various issues concerning security, ocean management, and state jurisdiction that tormented the global community at the time. Under Article 193, it is stated that Nations have the right to exploit their natural resources as they please but have to follow preservation guidelines. Under Article 194, they are obliged to take any measure necessary to prevent and control damage and pollution of the marine environment in their territory. Under Article 197, they have agreed to sustain a healthy partnership that will uphold conservation rules through international organizations and governance.

Developing Countries are to receive technical, scientific, and infrastructure support from developed nations for matters of pollution management and environmental protection (UNCLOS, art 202). Monitoring, reporting, and regular assessment of pollution risks and threatening economic activities have been established by articles 204, 205, 206, and 207. UNCLOS created the International Seabed Authority, an autonomous international organization that is in charge of the management of mineral activities and protection of the natural resources of the sea-bed. ISA is tasked with monitoring, assessing, developing, and implementing new programmes to prevent, reduce and control pollution. For the settlement of disputes on matters of the sea, the treaty also established another body, called the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

iStock (2019). Plastic, once ingested, gets in the turtle’s gut and limits its ability to absorb and digest food. [photo] Down to Earth. (4)

Other than the Convention, the United Nations Programme for the Environment has initiated the Regional Seas Programme, a mechanism for the conservation and the protection of the coastal environment and wildlife. Under the programme, there exist separate regional agreements that operate on areas of environmental concern and support local cooperation. These treaties have established protocols for hazardous oil and waste transportation, plastics, wastewaters, excess nutrients, the correct management of ecosystems, vessel pollution and marine litter, climate regulation, and sustainable development. For example, the Mediterranean is regulated by the 1976 Barcelona Convention, while the Wider Caribbean region has the Cartagena Convention, adopted in 1983. The Regional Seas Programme stretches across 18 different regions with 18 different frameworks. They act as a testament to the transboundary character of pollution.

The United Nations have dedicated to the Ocean the 14th of the Sustainable Development Goals, which is titled: “Conserve and Sustainably Use the Oceans, Seas and Marine Resources for Sustainable Development”. The principle provides a clear take on the steps that need to be taken moving forward, as well as regular information on the progress made concerning the issue. Other treaties that act as a point of reference are the Convention on Biological Diversity, adopted in 1993, which promotes the sustainable use of the world’s flora and fauna; the lnternational Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, adopted in 1978; the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, adopted in 1989; and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known as CITES, that has been in effect since 1975 and is globally applicable.

Rights of Nature Tribunal (2020). British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Case. [photo] (5)

The combination of these organizations, programmes, and agreements form the global ocean governance system. Still, much work needs to be done to get the ocean on track. Even if countries are part of a regional agreement, their social, political, cultural, and economic differences challenge the amount of coordination and their effectiveness. The implementation of a common marine policy on the management of ecosystems is not an easy task. National level and regional level programmes have made some progress, but that should be considered minuscule in comparison to what is necessary as the ocean degrades every day. Globally coordinated governance is key. On the 20 year Anniversary of the UNCLOS Treaty in 2002, the UN pointed out that the ocean used to be a pristine wilderness, essentially hinting that this is not the case anymore. The ocean’s pristine state has been harmed by man’s ambition and immodesty that has been relentless in its quest to fish, pollute, and abuse it to the point of extinction. None of these economic activities have had the intention to be destructive, but their accelerating repercussions have been evident for the past decades. In the future, remaining indifferent will prove to be incriminating.


  • Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, 22 March 1989, available at

  • Convention on Biological Diversity, 5 June 1992, available at

  • Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, 1 July 1975, available at

  • Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region (Cartagena Convention), 24 March 1983, available at

  • Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea against Pollution, 16 February 1976, available at

  • International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) as modified by the Protocol of 1978 (MARPOL 73/78), 17 February, 1978, available at

  • UN General Assembly, Convention on the Law of the Sea, 10 December 1982, available at


  • Marine. (n.d.). Global Environment Facility.,%2C%20overcapacity%2C%20and%20weak%20governance.

  • Protection of the Marine Environment | International Seabed Authority. (1982). ISA.

  • R. (2020, July 15). Causes, Effects and Solutions to Overfishing (Depletion of Fish Stocks). Conserve Energy Future.

  • Statista. (2022, January 12). Global plastic production 1950–2020.

  • UN. (2002). Oceans: the Lifeline of our Planet Anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea: 20 Years of Law and Order on the Oceans and Seas (1982–2002).

  • UNEP - UN Environment Programme (2020). Regional Seas Programme.

  • United Nations Statistics Division. (2021). SDG Indicators. UNStats.

  • World Wildlife Fund. (n.d.). Overfishing World Wildlife Fund.

  • World Economic Forum. (2021, October 8). How much plastic waste is floating in the Mediterranean Sea?

  • World Economic Forum. (2021, March 30) Why should we care about the ocean? Retrieved March 13, 2022, from

  • World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, (2016).The New Plastics Economy - Rethinking the future of plastics Report, available at

  • World Economic Forum. (2022). Strategic Intelligence | World Economic Forum. Stategic Intelligence.

  • World Ocean Review (2014) World Ocean Review 3 : Marine Resources -Opportunities and Risks. World Ocean Review.,too%20lax%20in%20their%20controls.

Image Sources

  • Image 1. Nicholas Samaras/Ocean Photography Awards in the article by Sky. (2021, September 17). Ocean Photography Awards capture the beauty of marine life - and its suffering. Sky News.

  • Image 2. As You Sow. (2021, July 16)Ocean Plastics.

  • Image 3. Fillon, L. (2019, May 3). Overfishing risks ocean deserts as stocks plummet. Phys.

  • Image 4. Istock, nd. found in Ghosh, P. (2019, April 29). Gullible creatures of the sea. Down to Earth.

  • Image 5. Tribunal, R. O. N. (2020, August 22). British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Case. Rights Of Nature Tribunal.

Author Photo

Konstantina Manta

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