Story: Law of the sea

Page 4. Protecting the oceans

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Oceans at risk

Although the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea established new laws, it could not guarantee that they would be managed wisely. It envisaged that coastal states would develop rules governing their marine environments, including fisheries in their exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Also needed were more specific international and regional rules to ensure the sustainable management of open-seas fisheries, and to set safety and environmental standards for international shipping.

Action programmes, additional rules, and new management bodies have achieved much. But the state of the world’s oceans continues to deteriorate. The three greatest threats remain:

  • pollution from land-based sources
  • overfishing
  • destruction of marine habitats.

The international community faces many other complex problems. These include criminal activities such as terrorism, piracy, migrant smuggling and illicit traffic in drugs, arms and other goods. There is also the major issue of the rising sea level caused by global warming.

New Zealand’s response

Joining in the effort to protect the world’s oceans, New Zealand has:

  • participated in global efforts to reduce pollution from land sources, which accounts for 80% of all ocean pollution.
  • sought to reduce the pollution that enters its own coastal waters from the land.
  • drawn attention to the fact that over 70% of the world’s fisheries are being fished at or above sustainable levels.
  • promoted international action to eliminate destructive fishing practices such as drift netting.
  • played a prominent part in establishing a forum within the United Nations where issues can be discussed informally, drawing on a range of expertise.

Overfishing and illegal fishing

New Zealand is particularly concerned to manage its fisheries and protect the marine environment both within its EEZ and in surrounding waters, including the Southern Ocean.

Cleaning up our own act

While critical of other countries for destructive fishing, New Zealand is not above reproach. Some of its own vessels practise bottom trawling. This has an extremely detrimental effect on the sea-floor environment, and has drawn international criticism.

The massive over-capacity of the world fishing fleet is a major concern for New Zealand. The world fishing fleet already has at least double the catching capacity needed for sustainable catch levels. It discards 25% of its catch, and would be running at a loss but for government subsidies.

In addition, the failure of many states to prevent their vessels from illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing on the high seas or in other EEZs is a significant problem.

Supporting the UN convention

New Zealand has a vested interest in supporting the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in its present form. It seems most unlikely that any attempted re-negotiation would produce such a favourable result. Therefore, New Zealand can be expected to play an active role in the development of new measures and agreements to deal with current problems and any that may yet emerge. The convention provides the stable legal framework against which such solutions can be developed.

How to cite this page:

Bill Mansfield, 'Law of the sea - Protecting the oceans', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/law-of-the-sea/page-4 (accessed 21 November 2017)

Story by Bill Mansfield, published 12 Jun 2006