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.

As an island nation, we take a strong interest in the way the ocean is managed. The sea is an important part of New Zealanders' 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. 

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's 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 the extension granted to New Zealand

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

New Zealand is actively participating in negotiations towards a new treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (or BBNJ for short). You can find more information about the process here.


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)


Noumea Convention

The 1986 Convention for the Protection of the Natural Resources and Environment of the South Pacific Region (Noumea Convention) is a comprehensive, umbrella agreement for the protection, management and development of the marine and coastal environment of the South Pacific region and addresses polution from all sources and the need for environmental impact assessments. 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.

More information about the Noumea Convention can be found on the Noumea Convention website (external link).