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World Ocean Day: IMO and its role in protecting the world’s oceans

The world’s oceans are one of our planet’s most valuable environmental resources. Seas cover around 70% of the world’s surface, providing raw materials, energy, food, employment, a place to live, a place to relax and the means to transport more than 80% of global trade by volume. Shipping is a key user of the oceans, delivering essential goods and commodities, taking ferry passengers to their destinations and carrying millions of tourists on cruises.

As the United Nations agency responsible for developing and adopting measures to improve the safety and security of international shipping and to prevent pollution from ships, and for the prevention of pollution by dumping of waste at sea, IMO has an integral role in meeting the targets set out in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. IMO’s work is also linked to many other SDGs too, for example SDG 13 on climate action, since the oceans are impacted by increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from human activities, but also SDGs 6 and 9, aiming at a sustainable society, with infrastructure, transportation and waste management that can support societies now and into the future.

IMO has over many decades developed and adopted mandatory rules, as well as recommendations and guidelines, to protect the marine environment from any potential negative impact of shipping activities. One of the key conventions protecting the oceans is the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). MARPOL was first adopted in 1973 with annexes covering the prevention of pollution from ships by oil, by chemicals carried in bulk, by packaged goods, by sewage and garbage from ships. The convention was expanded in 1997 to regulate air pollution and emissions from ships.

Other IMO treaties cover oil pollution preparedness, response and co-operation, control of harmful anti-fouling systems on ships, prevention of the potentially devastating effects of the spread of invasive harmful aquatic organisms carried by ships’ ballast water, and safe and environmentally sound recycling of ships, to name just a few. And just as the how the oceans are linked to coastal and on-land activities, IMO’s work to protect our oceans goes beyond the ships, by regulating the prevention of pollution from dumping at wastes at sea, including climate change mitigation options such as carbon capture and storage. This is done through two treaties known as the London Convention and Protocol.

IMO understands the need for special protection in some areas because of ecological, socio-economic or scientific significance. Special areas and particularly sensitive sea areas (PSSA) are designated to ensure higher levels of protection from shipping activities.

Recently, IMO has been enhancing its work on climate change mitigation and reduction of emissions from ships, which will contribute to reducing ocean acidification. IMO is also working to reduce marine plastic litter and to mitigate against invasive aquatic species. IMO also works to protect marine mammals from ship strikes and reduce underwater noise from ships.

Several global partnership projects executed by IMO address a range of ocean issues, including action on marine litter, reduction of GHG from shipping to address climate change as well as projects targeting the spread of potentially invasive aquatic species.

Coordination and collaboration is key in all ocean matters. IMO is the secretariat for the Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP), which is an inter-agency mechanism providing independent scientific advice to its ten sponsoring UN organizations. IMO is also playing an active role in other environmental cooperation mechanisms in the UN, such as UN-Oceans and the UN Environment Management Group (UN EMG).


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