The UK is party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), also called the Law of the Sea Convention or the Law of the Sea treaty, is the international agreement that resulted from the third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III), which took place between 1973 and 1982. The Law of the Sea Convention defines the rights and responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of the world’s oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources.
OSPAR is the mechanism by which 15 Governments and the EU cooperate to protect the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic. OSPAR started in 1972 with the Oslo Convention against dumping and was broadened to cover land-based sources of marine pollution and the offshore industry by the Paris Convention of 1974. These two conventions were unified, updated and extended by the 1992 OSPAR Convention (It is so named because of the “OS” for Oslo and “PAR” for Paris). The new annex on biodiversity and ecosystems was adopted in 1998 to cover non-polluting human activities that can adversely affect the sea. The UK ratified OSPAR in 1998 and implementation is coordinated by Defra with contributions to OSPAR Committees by a variety of government departments, the devolved administrations and agencies. In its 2016 update OSPAR reported a total of 448 protected areas, representing 5.9 per cent of the OSPAR Maritime Area.
The UK was one of the original 12 countries to sign the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, ensuring the frozen and near-pristine continent was set aside for peace and science. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) was established under the Antarctic Treaty System in 1982 with the objective of conserving Antarctic marine life. This was in response to increasing concern about the sustainability of krill fishing and the impact on the wider Southern Ocean ecosystem. CCAMLR is an international commission with 25 Members, and a further 11 countries have acceded to the Convention. Based on the best available scientific information, the Commission agrees a set of conservation measures that determine the use of marine living resources in the Antarctic. In October 2018, CCAMLR met to negotiate the Weddell Sea marine sanctuary proposed by the EU and developed by the German Government.
In September 2018, the UN began an Intergovernmental Conference on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in the ‘high seas’—marine Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ)—under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This seeks to achieve cooperation for the first time for the 58 per cent of the ocean which effectively has no protection. The first session was held between 4 and 17 September 2018, the second and third sessions will take place in 2019 and the fourth session in the first half of 2020.
The UK is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) signed by 150 government leaders at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. It is the first global treaty to provide a legal framework for biodiversity conservation. In a follow up conference in 2010, the Parties adopted a new Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 along with its 20 ‘Aichi targets’. The Aichi targets set out 20 challenging targets under five strategic goals. Parties are invited to set their own targets within this flexible framework, considering national needs and priorities.
Under the Convention on Biological Diversity, signatories much achieve Strategic Goal C: “To improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity”. Target 11 relates to the marine environment:
Target 11: By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water, and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes.
The UK also has commitments under the UN’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development or Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to promote the health of the ocean, including Goal 14 ‘Life below water’: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. SDG 14 Targets include:
14.1 By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, particularly from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution
14.2 By 2020, sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to avoid significant adverse impacts, including by strengthening their resilience, and take action for their restoration, to achieve healthy and productive oceans
14.3 Minimize and address the impacts of ocean acidification, including through enhanced scientific cooperation at all levels
14.4 By 2020, effectively regulate harvesting, and end overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and destructive fishing practices and implement science-based management plans, to restore fish stocks in the shortest time feasible at least to levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield as determined by their biological characteristics
14.5 By 2020, conserve at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, consistent with national and international law and based on best available scientific information
14.6 By 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing, and refrain from introducing new such subsidies, recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiation
14.7 By 2030, increase the economic benefits to SIDS and LDCs from the sustainable use of marine resources, including through sustainable management of fisheries, aquaculture and tourism
14.A Increase scientific knowledge, develop research capacities and transfer marine technology taking into account the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission Criteria and Guidelines on the Transfer of Marine Technology, in order to improve ocean health and to enhance the contribution of marine biodiversity to the development of developing countries, in particular SIDS [Small Island Developing States] and LDCs [least developed countries].
14.B Provide access of small-scale artisanal fishers to marine resources and markets
14.C Ensure the full implementation of international law, as reflected in UNCLOS for states parties to it, including, where applicable, existing regional and international regimes for the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources by their parties.
Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) are designated under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 and Marine Act (Northern Ireland) 2013. MCZs protect a range of nationally important marine wildlife, habitats, geology and geomorphology, and can be designated anywhere in English and Welsh territorial and UK offshore waters.
Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) are designated under the Habitats Directive 1992. SACs with marine components are sites that contain qualifying marine habitats or species. There are currently 115 SACs with marine components that cover about 14 per cent of the UK’s marine area.
Special Protected Areas (SPAs) are designated under the Bird Directive 2009. There are 109 SPAs with marine components in the UK including four wholly marine SPAs.
Nature Conservation Marine Protected Areas are designated under The Marine (Scotland) Act 2010. In July 2014, 30 Nature Conservation MPAs were designated in the seas around Scotland, of which 13 are offshore.
Also included in the UK’s MPA network are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) that extend below the low water mark, Ramsar Sites designated under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands 1971, and Fisheries closures including those under the Inshore Fishing (Scotland) Act 1984, regulatory measures under the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission and regulations under the Common Fisheries Policy.
318 OSPAR. 2017.
319 Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty. 2011.
321 , The Guardian, 5 Aug 2018
322 Secretariat of the Convention on Biodiversity.
325 JNCC. 2018. [Accessed 21/11/2018]
326 JNCC. 2018. [Accessed 21/11/2018]
327 JNCC. 2018. [Accessed 21/11/2018]
328 JNCC. 2018. [Accessed 21/11/2018]
329 MCCIP. 2015. Implications for the implementation of marine biodiversity legislation
Published: 17 January 2019