RESCUE: part nine, UNCLOS, A Plan in Hand

World Ocean Forum
4 min readMar 8, 2023

This week we continue the multi-part RESCUE series with a highlight of UNCLOS, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a major example of a far-reaching universal agreement that was drafted in 1982 and ratified in 1984. At the recent Davos gathering, a call to overhaul the UNCLOS instrument of ocean protection went largely unheeded. Who will be willing to step up and redress priorities to conserve and sustain the ocean?

Treaties advance policy, from intention to action. They are transformative, and can shatter the status quo. We have discussed the treaties that protect the Antarctic and the Sargasso Sea as examples of their impact and efficacy however localized. But what of others: agreements that reach far beyond the local to the universal?

There is one major ocean treaty, the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that already exists, drafted in 1982, ratified in 1994 by 168 nations, described by the UN Secretary General at the time, as “possibly the most significant legal instrument of this century.” It was based on the concept that the ocean, covering 70% of the Earth’s surface, was a natural commons, interconnected, and source of enormous social and financial value that was to be governed “for the benefit of all mankind.” It divided the ocean into zones from coastline to territorial sea to the high seas, acknowledged their economic value, and created a set of governing principles that guaranteed safe passage, regulated resources, guided scientific research, protected and conserved natural assets, and set up means for the resolution of disputes. It was, no doubt, a compromise of compromises, but it established a framework for order that extended from wetlands to inshore waters to the deep ocean to the ocean floor. That it has not been ratified by the United States, Canada, and Japan, among the largest world maritime economies in the world, has no doubt weakened its power, but that does not undermine the structural assumptions or the visionary values contained.

UNCLOS was immediately compromised by any number of independent multi-national side agreements, particularly in fishing, that enabled harvest through exceptions, subsidies, and impunity that sabotaged the law and the spirit of the law to permit de facto indiscriminate fishing in the open ocean outside the limit of national jurisdiction and brought us today to a condition of peak fish — or maximum sustainable yield — the prospect of one aspect of earth’s greatest natural asset being consumed toward bankruptcy. The similar principles and politics of oil and energy, and today the prospect of deep-sea and genetic mining, are under similar pressure for the same reasons and the same outcomes. That there was created by UNCLOS an International Seabed Authority to define standards, review permits, and adjudicate conflicts of interest was a prescient protection not yet effectively tested.

At the recent Davos gathering of economic and government leaders there was a call for an UNCLOS “overhaul,” a review that would presumably update its premises and intents to the critical, deteriorating condition of ocean protection. It did not seem to cause much of a stir. Nor have the ocean NGOs and policy community spent much time advocating for and relating their innovative ideas and new practices to this existing, ratified instrument of protection. That seems short-sighted and impolitic.

There is controversy over proposed deep-sea mining of the ocean floor in search of rare metals required for batteries to power a new electricity-based world energy economy. Even as battery technology accelerates, almost daily, obviating the necessity for such mineral resources, the old paradigm prevails and the “common benefit to all mankind” becomes a kind of cosmic irony. And there is an equal and lesser known threat in the intellectual property value of the ocean; in the US, Germany, and Japan over 13,000 patents have been filed to capture the commercial potential found marine organisms and natural processes, with 20 years of monopoly profits guaranteed by law, which privatizes that value, defies the commons, and attacks the purpose and efficacy of the UNCLOS agreement. We face yet again the appropriation of the ocean’s natural asset value for private gain.

If there exists one galvanizing structure around which the world ocean community could coalesce and relate all programs and priorities for ocean conservation and sustainability, it is this already proved structure to be revitalized in relation to every action, every scientific endeavor, every policy, everywhere. Who will step up to readdress UNCLOS as a plan in place for RESCUE?

R for renewal
E for environment
S for society
C for collaboration
U for understanding
E for engagement

RESCUE is a multi-part series outlining a new plan for the ocean and a new perspective to enable a new set of actions: from the smallest to the largest solutions and inventions, to radical methods and policy changes for a sustainable future. Learn more at

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. He is also host of World Ocean Radio, upon which this blog is inspired. World Ocean Radio celebrates 15 years this year, with more than 660 episodes produced to date.



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