Oceans and fisheries

The Pacific Ocean that surrounds New Zealand and the marine resources and life within it play a vital role in our economic, social and cultural wellbeing and identity.

On this page

MFAT represents New Zealand in global discussions and negotiations to ensure the successful implementation of international agreements on ocean governance and fisheries management such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. We pay special attention to the sustainable management of fisheries.

UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

UNCLOS is often described as a “constitution for the oceans”. It sets out how countries are to cooperate regarding the conservation and use of the ocean, and it provides a comprehensive regime for the law of the sea. UNCLOS covers matters such as:

  • marine zones including the territorial sea, the EEZ (the exclusive economic zone that extends 200 nautical miles offshore) and the continental shelf
  • legal status of deep seabed resources that are beyond any nation's jurisdiction
  • conservation and management of fisheries
  • protection and preservation of the marine environment
  • marine scientific research
  • dispute settlement procedures.

UNCLOS came into force in 1994 and New Zealand ratified it in 1996. By January 2015, 166 countries and the European Union had joined the Convention. Many aspects of its provisions are widely regarded as reflecting customary international law, making them legally binding even on states that are not party to UNCLOS.

Read about the different marine zones and their jurisdictions under international and New Zealand law(external link)

Implementing UNCLOS

Under UNCLOS there are separate bodies to ensure it is implemented effectively. These are:

The Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf

The Commission considers submissions by countries seeking to extend the outer limits of their continental shelf where it goes beyond their EEZ, and makes recommendations.

Read about New Zealand's extension

The International Seabed Authority

The Authority is an autonomous organisation made up of representatives from different governments. It controls activities relating to the mineral resources within the deep seabed, and outside the jurisdiction of any country.

Up to 7% of revenue from any resources of the continental shelf outside the EEZ must be paid to the International Seabed Authority, to redistribute to other developing states.

The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS)

ITLOS deals with disputes relating to the interpretation and application of the Convention. So far, it’s heard 23 cases – many of which concern the prompt release of arrested vessels. In 2014 we presented evidence for case 21 which is looking into the responsibilities of countries that have vessels fishing illegally in their waters. The Tribunal’s Opinion on this case was delivered in April 2015.

See the list of ITLOS cases(external link)

Marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction

On March 4, 2023, and after nearly two decades of negotiations, UN member states, including Aotearoa New Zealand, reached the successful conclusion of negotiations(external link) for a new global treaty on conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, commonly known as the high seas.

Agreement on the text of the new treaty was reached by delegates of the International Conference on marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, commonly known as BBNJ for short, after a marathon 36 hour final day of negotiations.

International Maritime Organisation (IMO)

This UN agency sets global standards for maritime safety and to prevent pollution by ships. These include international shipping rules for safety and environmental standards, compensation and liability, and maritime security. Shipping is an important area for New Zealand. It relates to a wide range of areas of interest for New Zealand including environmental and safety issues in the Antarctic, and the import and export of seaborne trade.

Find out more about the IMO(external link)

Ocean Acidification

A Policymaker's Handbook for Addressing the Impacts of Ocean Acidification.

New Zealand leads the Commonwealth Blue Charter Action Group(external link) on addressing the impacts of ocean acidification. The Commonwealth Blue Charter is a high-level political declaration on the ocean, adopted by Commonwealth leaders at their Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London in 2018. It establishes a framework for Commonwealth cooperation to address ocean-related challenges through country-led Action Groups. Through New Zealand’s leadership, the Action Group has produced “A Policymakers’ Handbook for Addressing the Impacts of Ocean Acidification”(external link).

New Zealand’s leadership of the Commonwealth Blue Charter Action Group(external link) on ocean acidification complements our work through the New Zealand-Pacific Partnership on Ocean Acidification project with the Secretariat of the Pacific Environment Programme (SPREP), which has also developed a handbook — “Mainstreaming OA into National Policies: A Handbook for Pacific Islands”(external link).

Noumea Convention

The 1986 Convention for the Protection of the Natural Resources and Environment of the South Pacific Region (Noumea Convention(external link)) is a comprehensive agreement for the protection, management and development of the marine and coastal environment of the South Pacific region. The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) is the secretariat to the Noumea Convention.

The Noumea Convention is the Pacific region component of UNEP's Regional Seas Programme(external link) launched in 1972. The programme aims to address the accelerating degradation of the world's oceans and coastal areas through the sustainable management and use of marine and coastal environments. 

The Pacific Ocean

Like New Zealand, every one of our Pacific neighbours has a special relationship with the ocean. They rely on the ocean for food security as well as their social, cultural, environmental, and economic well-being.

As an island nations, we take a strong interest in the way the ocean is managed. The sea is an important part of New Zealanders' our lives both recreationally and as a source of food and income. We rely heavily on shipping for our international trade, and fisheries are one of our leading export industries.

We are all faced with unprecedented threats from the ocean. Pacific countries are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise due to climate change and increasingly severe and unpredictable weather events. The ocean and its resources are under stress from human activities such as over-fishing and pollution.

Pacific countries have developed the Blue Pacific(external link) narrative, which captures this special relationship and frames the region as custodians of an oceanic continent.

MFAT represents New Zealand in global discussions and negotiations to ensure the successful implementation of international agreements on ocean governance and fisheries management such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. We pay special attention to the sustainable management of fisheries.

Our approach

New Zealand’s approach to promoting a healthy ocean and ensuring good management of its resources is to strengthen regional decision making based on good information, including traditional knowledge. We work regionally and internationally to amplify the Pacific voice on issues of importance to the region.

One of the ways we do this is through support to the Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner(external link) (OPOC) which works to enhance coordination, collaboration and integration for the sustainable development, management and conservation of the Pacific Ocean and its resources.

New Zealand also supports the Pacific Community Centre for Ocean Science(external link) (PCCOS) a regional centre of excellence that promotes and coordinates oceans science and governance information for the Pacific region. PCCOS ensures that good ocean science and data, as well as traditional knowledge, are easily accessible to policy and decision makers.


Fisheries are a vital part of the culture, economy, and environment of Pacific countries.

New Zealand works with Pacific countries and regional organisations in order to protect the sustainability of fisheries resources for future generations. We support the provision of high-quality fisheries science, management advice, and improved compliance monitoring. We are committed to ensuring our fisheries support is in line with the priorities of Pacific countries, as outlined in the Regional Roadmap for Sustainable Pacific Fisheries(external link).

Tuna fisheries

Over the last two decades, Pacific countries have worked hard to get fair economic returns from their fisheries resources. The countries have worked together on management reforms helping to make the Pacific tuna fishery one of the most sustainable in the world. However, overfishing and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing continues.

New Zealand works with Pacific countries to support sustainable fisheries through better science, management, and compliance practices. We fund regional organisations such as the Forum Fisheries Agency(external link) and The Pacific Community(external link), to provide scientific and technical fisheries expertise to the region and support Pacific-led management and decision-making.

We also fund projects that ensure tuna stocks are well-monitored, tuna catch can be traced and verified as sustainably caught, and that benefits from the tuna fishery are returned to Pacific countries. We support leadership and build capability in Pacific fisheries departments and regional organisations.

Coastal fisheries and aquaculture

As the impacts of climate change are felt around the Pacific, it’s increasingly important to look after the health of coastal and marine ecosystems. These ecosystems are a core source of food and income for a great number of Pacific people. New Zealand works with Pacific countries to improve coastal fisheries management, and to explore alternative livelihoods through aquaculture.

International Fisheries management(external link)


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