Marine Pollution- International Laws

Ocean pollution has been internationally regulated for decades. The three most important conventions are the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), The London Protocol, and MARPOL. Here’s what you should know about each:

Garbage Barge off Hong Kong Credit:

UNCLOS III (1982): Part XII, Section 5 of the law addresses marine pollution. It compels states to adopt laws and regulations to prevent pollution from land-based sources, and to work together at a regional level (A. 207). It also addresses pollution from sea bed activities (A. 208), dumping, (A. 210), and vessel discharge (A. 211). Enforcement falls primarily on the flag state, but coastal states and port states are given a measure of power if pollution can be shown to cause direct damage. UNCLOS is a broad framework for ocean policy. The language encourages regional cooperation, and urge compliance to “competent international bodies” in this case referring to International Maritime Organization (IMO).

Despite playing an important role in the creation of the law, the United States is not a signatory of UNCLOS III.

London Protocol (1972, amended 2006): The London Protocol directly regulates ocean dumping. The definition of dumping, in this law, is important.

“Dumping means: any deliberate disposal into the sea of waste or other matter from vessels, aircraft, platforms or other man-made structures at sea.”

“Dumping does not include: the disposal into the sea of wastes or other matter incidental to, or derived form the normal operations of vessels, aircraft, platforms or other man-made structures.”

Parties are prohibited from dumping anything other than materials in Annex I, and this requires permits. It does not allow the incineration of waste at sea, or the export of waste to be dumped by another country. It applies to all areas out side of internal waters.

The United States signed the London Protocol in 1988, but the treaty was never ratified by Congress.

MARPOL 73/78: The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) is made up of 6 Annexes and aims to minimize and prevent incidental pollution from ships, and discharge of waste form normal operations (things not covered by the London Protocol, because of the definition of “dumping”). Annex I deals with oil, and tanker ships. Annex II lists “noxious liquids” that are regulated, and Annex III regulates the packaging and shipment of “harmful chemicals”. Annex IV deals with discharge of sewage, Annex V regulates garbage, and the newest Annex VI regulates atmospheric pollution. For my purposes Annex V is the most important. Revised in 2012, Annex V prohibits the discharge of all garbage with the exception of animal carcasses, food waste, and cleaning agents outside of specially designated areas.

The United State has only signed onto Annexes I, II, III, and V.

Beyond UNCLOS’s appeal for states to regulate land-based pollution, the only widely accepted laws are for things that occur at sea (i.e. dumping and discharge). These laws are very successful, seeing as how only 20% of marine litter is estimated to come from vessels. But it is time to consider a way to regulate the 80% coming from land.


Read more about UNCLOS III here

Read more about the London Protocol here

Read more about MARPOL here


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