Policy Options: Message in a bottle
UN Convention on the Law of the Sea


NCLOS, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is the first comprehensive, enforceable international environmental law, covering all forms of marine pollution (land-based, atmospheric, ship-borne, and originating from activities on the sea-bed). UNCLOS of 1982 enters into force November 16, 1994.

It establishes a framework for cooperation on conservation and management of marine living resources on the high seas. The treaty serves as an umbrella for numerous existing international agreements covering the oceans, including international fisheries agreements and regional initiatives.

It takes an eco-system approach to all uses of the oceans, and provides an advanced institutional framework for international environmental, scientific and technical cooperation. It is the only convention that provides for a comprehensive, binding system for the peaceful settlement of disputes.

Although many nations have signed and notified UNCLOS, their number has not been sufficient to bring it into force. Despite the fact that UNCLOS runs 320 Articles and IX Annexes, there are still important issues that require further work. For example, controversies exist over overlapping jurisdiction of territorial waters (12 nautical miles) and Exclusive Economic Zones (200 nautical miles).

The Law of the Sea is unclear on matters of high sea fishing, of fish stocks that straddle the boundaries of EEZs and of fish species that migrate long distances. There are no regulations which are enforceable. Those countries which do not want to comply with restrictions imposed by an agreement, can refuse to do so (e.g. Norway and whaling), or simply leave (e.g. Iceland and whaling). Further, if a home nation enters into an agreement that might restrict fishing, fishing vessels from that nation can adopt a flag of another nation which has not signed the agreement.

  • Download full text of UNCLOS (pdf)
  • Further details on UNCLOS
    Other related conventions and treaties:
    • Agenda 21, the Earth Summit
    • Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources
    • Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild and Flora
    • Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals
    • FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries
    • UN Agreement on Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks

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