Legal rights for the ocean

Jun 22, 2017 Environment ,General Interest

The earth’s rivers, streams, lakes, dams and oceans are struggling to weather the effects of human, agricultural and industrial pollution. Will granting them a legal status make a difference, asks John Eichelsheim.

In March this year, the Whanganui River was granted a legal identity.

Its new status recognises the river’s importance for Whanganui iwi as their ancestral river, and offers the
Whanganui River the same legal rights and protections as a human being.

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At the time, many commentators scoffed at the very idea of an inanimate object having a ‘personality;’ others felt the river’s new status was a smokescreen behind which Maori could usurp the governance of a public resource. Much of the commentary was derisive; some of it was downright abusive.

And while the ruling may have struck many observers as bizarre, the river’s new status in law is now a fact and it sets a precedent. Just a week after the Whanganui River became a legal personality an Indian court declared the Ganges and Yamuna rivers as living entities.

In a country as disorganised and corrupt as India, upholding the rights of these newly-created entities might be problematic, but the ruling could be the first step towards reversing the precipitous decline of two of the world’s most abused waterways.

Recently a group of experts considering the future of Earth’s oceans at a University of Auckland round table discussion suggested that the next step to protect oceans from man-made climate change, pollution, plastics contamination, acidification and over-fishing was to give them a legal personality.

The forum group comprised Auckland’s Marine Science Institute director Simon Thrush, Auckland University emeritus professor Nordin Hassan, and senior lecturers Rochelle Constantine and Dan Hikuroa. They concluded the best way to protect the world’s seas from environmental ruin was to give them the same legal status as people.

A legal personality has the rights, duties and liabilities of a person but is not a human being. Therefore, if someone abused or harmed the ocean the law would regard it in the same way as someone harming a person or group of people.

In theory, wrong-doers could be prosecuted in the law courts, providing the world’s oceans and seas with a measure of protection.

The idea isn’t as strange as it might seem, says Klaus Bosselmann from The New Zealand Centre for Environmental Law, who recently presented to the United Nations on the issue of seas getting the same legal recognition as people.

This type of legal identity was becoming more common, he said, and legal recognition for seas and oceans (rivers and lakes) was “a clear prospect”. Governments around the globe just needed a clear voice to remind them of the possibility.

Currently the world’s oceans receive little or no protection, legal or otherwise. International waters suffer unregulated fisheries for tuna, swordfish, Antarctic toothfish, squid and many other marine species.

The alarming environmental degradation of Earth’s oceans is proceeding at an accelerating rate. In many parts of the world human, agricultural and industrial waste flows unimpeded into the ocean where it’s joined by mountains of plastic carried to the sea by rivers, streams and storm water drains. As the world’s population grows ever larger and emerging nations undergo their own industrial revolutions, left unchecked the situation can only get worse.

So, absurd as it sounds, if something as simple as declaring the ocean a legal identity can mitigate even a little of the damage by offering oceans the protection of law, why not try it? It might even work if there’s enough collective will.


• Land-based sources account for approximately 80 per cent of marine pollution.
• Around 500 low oxygen dead zones cover more than 245,000 km² of ocean.
• Eroded plastic fragments known as micro-plastics are already found on most beaches.
• Plastic debris kills more than a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals every year.
Source: UNESCO