The speed and scale of human impacts on marine species, such as climate change and exploitation for international markets, coupled with a poor regulatory regime and lack of enforcement, make it especially difficult to protect marine species beyond areas of national jurisdiction. Yet as the number of multilateral treaties continues to grow, the declining state of the world’s oceans suggest that these treaties are largely failing to fulfill their missions and achieve meaningful protection.

This study provides an analysis of all multilateral treaties governing activities related to oceans. A range of issues is examined including efficacy, geographic and taxonomic distribution, and other factors that facilitate or inhibit conservation.

The results show that since 1882, 103 countries have signed 265 multilateral treaties related to the management of marine resources. The majority of treaties (51%) deal with fisheries, 30% deal with pollution, 4% marine mammals and 15% deal with other topics. When looking at the factors that may predict the efficacy of multilateral treaties, the analysis showed that, 65% of marine treaties have secretariats, 50% have scientific mandates, and 13% have enforced mechanisms, however, only 9% have all three.

The authors suggest four general areas that could provide opportunities for marine conservation through multilateral treaties: 1) continuing the heretofore successful implementation of pollution treaties; 2) expanding and implementing the conservation mandate of fishing treaties, as has been accomplished in some marine mammal hunting agreements, 3) identifying and improving conservation treaties that lack enforcement or compliance mechanisms in order to prevent the drag of “empty treaties”; and 4) negotiating broad agreements meant to mitigate confusion and/or fill gaps associated with overlapping or missing mandates of other treaty-based international organizations.

It is concluded that, as current demand for ocean resources outpaces the ocean’s ability to replenish itself, an efficient and effective network of multilateral agreements is an important tool for marine conservation and for the billions of people who directly benefit from healthy oceans. Improved governance will play a crucial role in halting the current deterioration of marine ecosystems and in developing a sustainable future for coastal and marine economies. In this sense, effective implementation of active treaties, better compliance and strengthened enforcement of existing measures, and targeted development of new agreements, can all help correct some of the ongoing challenges in ocean conservation.

Al-Abdulrazzak D, Galland GR, McClenachan L, Hocevar J (2017) Opportunities for improving global marine conservation through multilateral treaties. Marine Policy 86:247-252