Marine Science Chapters


Legislation Affecting the Oceans

Humans have been fighting over rights to land areas as well as ocean areas for hundreds (thousands) of years. As soon as technology developed to travel the globe in boats, humans began staking out territories on land and sea away from their respective country. Often these claims created problems that resulted in wars. Recently humans have been involved in more peaceful means to resolve these conflicts through international groups and legislation. The marine environment has been profoundly affected by these international groups and legislation - in most cases in a positive way.

One of the longest standing areas of legislation affecting the oceans concerns whales. Most whales are an international species, roaming the oceans and sought after by many countries for centuries for food as well as the oil in their blubber. As more countries entered the whaling business and better boats were developed there was a pronounced decline in the numbers of whales (especially of certain species). [NOTE: refer to lesson 6.3, Whaling (case study) for more specifics]

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established in 1946 primarily to try to save the whaling industry. This commission had 20 countries as original members and tried to set annual quotas for each whale species. Several whaling nations were not part of this commission and there was no real enforcement to these quotas. The work of the IWC continues but is often controversial and not accepted by some countries.

The United States passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 banning the hunting of all marine mammals (whales, seals, sea lions, etc.) in waters regulated by the United States (except by native Americans) as well as the importing of any marine mammal products.

More global marine legislation is related to ownership of geographic areas of Earth's oceans and not a particular animal group (like the whales). This legislation is generally conducted through the United Nations.

An international 'Law of the Sea' was adopted by a majority of Earth's countries through the United Nations (UN) in 1982. This is (more or less) respected by most countries of the world. The Law of the Sea defines 12 miles as the distance from any country's shores where they can claim their territory (excluding a few areas of international overlap). It also defines 200 miles from shore as a boundary for a nation's 'Exclusive Economic Zone' (EEZ) where they have power over the resources and environmental protection. Areas outside this are considered to be the 'high seas' and owned by all peoples jointly. Areas such as Antarctica and the deep-sea have no national ownership.

Each nation has its own laws and regulations that affect the ocean. The United States has specific laws protecting marine mammals (and prohibiting the import of any marine mammal products from other countries). There is also a national 'listing' of species as endangered or threatened which protects these species in the entire USA until they are removed from the list. The USA has also set up a series of National Marine Sanctuaries with specific laws for the protection of these natural areas.

In the United States much of the marine regulation is left to the individual states. In California there are numerous fishing regulations as well as regulations concerning the taking of marine animals within the intertidal zone. All taking must be done with a fishing license in California and only with animals defined on the fishing regulations. Animals without food value are not generally included (sea stars, corals, jellyfish). Individuals with a reason for possessing species not covered by a fishing license can obtain a 'scientific collecting permit' from the State of California (researchers and teachers primarily).

The outlook for the oceans is both good and bad depending on exactly what one is considering. One thing for certain, it is definitely changing. Humans have the ability to work with the natural environment in extraordinary ways and most of us try to remain hopeful that the future of our oceans is a good one. The more we know about this vast area the better we can make important decisions that may affect ourselves, our communities, our country, and our world. The next two lessons are case studies that take a close look at two different approaches to marine problems: Abalone - a national problem with an invertebrate group, and Whaling - an international problem with a group and attempts to use legislation for a solution. The last lesson, Mariculture, takes a look at past and present attempts to farm marine species for a variety of reasons (both commercially and for restoration).

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(Revised 6 August 2007)
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