An Introduction to Ocean Rights

Solutions-based approaches to management and protection

by Michelle Bender, Earth Law Center

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just released a report warning that we have 12 years to change our practices in order to meet the maximum 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global temperature. The impact on the oceans has already been severe: we have already lost half of the world’s coral reefs. But we can save the other half.

We can do so by changing how we view and treat the ocean. At Earth Law Center (ELC) we are working to provide a solution that changes our approach to management and protection. In order to save coral reefs (and ocean biodiversity generally) experts say we must:

● Shift to holistic and alternative forms of management;

Create new strategies that take into account system functions and land-sea connectivity;

● Manage for improved resilience; and

● Incorporate the role of human activity in shaping ecosystems.

Ocean Rights is a new framework that seeks to do just that, by creating a climate of balance between humans and the ocean, and new standards and criteria for conservation. Ocean Rights requires humans to treat the ocean as a fellow member of the Earth community, rather than a resource for consumption. It is an evolutionary and innovative solution, one that is necessary for the literal changing climate.

What has been done so far

Earth Law Center has created the Earth Law Framework for Marine Protected Areas, a guideline for how to incorporate Ocean Rights into current protection efforts. ELC has also launched the Ocean Rights Initiative, signed by 75 organizations from 34 countries, that calls upon governments to adopt this new framework to ocean management. ELC is working to implement the framework internationally, having launched campaigns in the Salish Sea (United States and Canada), Uruguay and Ecuador.

Sneak peak on what is coming

High Seas as a legal entity
There is currently no effective management framework for the high seas. Though negotiations and meetings are underway to create a new treaty for managing biodiversity on the high seas, this will likely take years to enter into force. ELC is working to designate the High Seas as a legal entity. There is a growing consensus that 30–50% of the ocean should be protected as marine reserves to conserve and protect biodiversity and ocean health.v] This needs to be our minimum, but we should aim higher. Also, multiple studies show the benefits exceed the costs for closing the high seas to fishing. With almost two-thirds of the ocean is beyond areas of national jurisdiction, this represents an opportunity to evolve our approach to marine conservation, and conserve half of the ocean by fully protecting the high seas.

With the ocean recognized as a legal entity, it would be taken out of the realm of property. The high seas, therefore, would no longer belong to one Nation, or all Nations, but instead is a living area belonging to itself, with representation of its interests- that we must respect and manage responsibly and sustainably. This rids us of the common access and tragedy of the commons problems that are now so prevalent.

Rights of the Pacific Ocean
At the first United Nations Ocean Conference in 2017, a group of organizations( the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme, SPREP (Intergovernmental organization) Conservation International Pacific Islands programme (NGO) Centre International de Droit Compar de l’Environnement (NGO)), made a commitment to create a Convention on the Rights of the Pacific Ocean to be open to all countries in 2020.

The commitment includes:

● undertaking multi-disciplinary scientific studies to enhance knowledge on the Ocean

● identifying possible rights to be recognized to the Ocean on its own, in compliance with existing international law

● improving existing national laws and propose new ones to treat and protect the Ocean as a person, enhance its resilience in the wake of Climate Change and prevent over-exploitation of marine biodiversity

● working in a peaceful and constructive approach with national governments, intergovernmental organizations, citizens, private sector stakeholders etc. without any discrimination.

ELC is a critical partner in this initiative. The first meeting is being held Nov. 19th and 20th in Auckland, New Zealand in collaboration with Auckland University department of Pacific & Maori studies. In order for rights of nature to be implemented successfully, it is necessary to develop the standards and criteria for decision making. This project will undertake this process for the ocean, and provide a standard that can be replicated for other elements of nature internationally.

Working with partners in Ecuador to share best practices 
and implementation standards

The Rights of Nature movement is growing, now prevalent in approximately 20 countries. One could say that the movement has progressed from stage 1 to stage 2, from awareness to implementation. Many groups and places that have enacted ‘rights of nature’ laws are now asking how to implement them. While in Ecuador at the 10th Anniversary of Rights of Nature Symposium, I met with ministers, legal advisors, NGOs, scientists etc. to learn the best practices and lessons learned in Ecuador to apply rights of nature to the ocean, and in particular the Galapagos.

From these meetings, I learned how important it is to have a normative law that establishes the standards and criteria for implementation. Without such legal standards, Rights of Nature is open to personal interpretation, and implementation will often fall to the judicial system, once the damage is done, rather than proactive protection. In addition to launching new campaigns for ocean rights in Ecuador, ELC is working with partners to create the standards and gather best practices for implementation that can then guide the international community, allowing more initiatives to be launched for Ocean Rights.

It is more important now than ever before, to educate and raise awareness on the issues we face- and how important the ocean is to not only our health and livelihoods, but for survival. Recognition of Ocean Rights can help spur the behavioral change needed to proactively support and implement policies that will maintain ocean health and support human well-being simultaneously.


Michelle Bender is the Ocean Rights Manager at the Earth Law Center in Spokane, Washington where she works towards promoting legal rights for marine ecosystems and species.

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The Earth Law Framework for Marine Protected Areas: Adopting a Holistic, Systems and Rights-Based Approach to Ocean Governance. Download the framework.