body of water during golden hour

Making Waves with International Ocean Governance

Post Authored By: Teresa Dettloff

International ocean governance is a broad category of law, which includes treaties, rules, laws, and agreements that set forth how humans interact with the ocean.[1] There are many laws that work in conjunction with one another on both the national and international level that aim to protect the Earth’s oceans and the resources contained therein.


One important way that the law protects the ocean and its resources is through the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, or NMSA. The NMSA (Title 16, Chapter 32, Sections 1431 et seq. of the United States Code) was enacted with the purpose of designating areas of the marine environment as sanctuaries, affording these areas special protections. The statute sets forth certain criteria necessary for designating an area as a marine sanctuary, including whether the area to be designated has a special national significance and whether existing state and federal authorities are inadequate or should be supplemented to promote conservation, resource protection, scientific research, and public education.[2] There is also extensive documentation required to designate an area as a marine sanctuary, including a draft environmental impact statement, a draft management plan, and a map depicting the boundaries of the proposed sanctuary.

Marine protected areas, or MPAs, are established to protect specific areas in the world’s waters, whether that be to preserve an ecosystem or a population threatened by human environmental impact, or archaeological sites, such as shipwrecks.[3] Areas with an MPA distinction can be more heavily regulated, and often place limits on the ways in which humans interact with this area. Many sections of the Great Lakes are considered MPAs, including Indiana Dunes State Park, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and Isle Royale National Park.[4]


The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is a comprehensive legal framework that governs many aspects of ocean-related issues, including research, economic and commercial activities, environmental control, dispute resolution, and travel.[5] The Convention contains 320 articles that address a broad range of issues affecting the earth’s oceans. Notably, the Convention calls on member states to avoid over-exploitation of resources.[6] The Convention also sets forth that member states and international organizations still have the authority to regulate, prohibit, or limit exploitation of marine mammals in a more restrictive manner than set forth in the Convention.[7] In 2019, in a Joint Report to the European Parliament and Council, the European Commission reported on two years of progress with respect to international ocean governance.[8] According to the report, the European Union enacted a specific agenda related to ocean conservation to work in tandem with the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda and sustainable development goals.[9]

One Goal

While International Ocean Governance is a complex compilation of laws on both the international and national level, each framework is implemented with the goal of protecting Earth’s waters, especially our oceans. While great progress has been made, there is still much to be done.

[1] International Ocean Governance, International Union for Conservation of Nature (Oct. 2, 2021),

[2] National Marine Sanctuaries Act, (Title 16, Chapter 32, Section 303(a)); available at:

[3] Marine Protected Area, National Geographic (Oct. 2, 2021),

[4]Snapshot of Great Lakes MPAs, National Marine Protected Areas Center (July 2011),

[5] United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea, United Nations (Nov. 2, 2020),

[6] Id. at Section 2.

[7] Id. at Section 2, Article 65. e

[8] Improving International Ocean Governance, European Commission (2019),

[9] Id.

About the Author:

Teresa Detloff

Teresa Detloff practices law in Chicago, Illinois and is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago School of Law, where she served as a lead article editor for the law journal. She is also a member of the United Nations Association Chicago Chapter.

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