MGR User Toolkit

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

In relation to sampling marine genetic resources (MGR) within national jurisdiction, the provisions of UNCLOS and the Nagoya Protocol overlap.

Whilst there are no specific references to MGR in UNCLOS, a number of its provisions apply to activities related to MGRs, in particular its Part XIII on marine scientific research. Depending on the specific maritime area where MSR will occur, the conduct of scientific research can either be a freedom or a right, and can be subject to regulations or not. The maritime spaces are delimited in the UNCLOS as is shown on figure 2.

Figure 2. Maritime Boundaries in the UNCLOS

Source: Arctic Council, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment 2009 Report (Tromsø, Norway: 2009), p. 52, available at:

Up to the Exclusive Economic Zone’s (EEZ) 200 nautical miles from the coastline for the water column, and up to 350 nautical miles for the continental shelf, the maritime space is under the jurisdiction of the coastal State. Within these limits, all third States – including their researchers - have the right to conduct marine scientific research provided that they respect the requirements of the coastal State. Beyond the 12 nautical miles of the territorial sea, though, the coastal State does not have full sovereignty but rather exclusive rights relating to specific activities only. In particular, coastal States have the right to regulate and authorize marine scientific research as they wish, as long as it respects the basic rights of third States.

The UNCLOS gives further details on the minimum requirements to organize research campaigns in the waters of the coastal States. For instance, notification should occur at least six months prior to a scientific project, and participation of national observers to the campaign is a prerogative of the coastal State. The authorization and conditions are often granted in the form of a research permit, the authority responsible being different in each case depending on the administrative organization of the coastal State. However, under normal circumstances, the coastal State must grant its consent to scientific activities. For further details on how to notify and seek for the research permit see the section on Guidelines.

Beyond the limits of the EEZ and/or the continental shelf, in the areas beyond national jurisdiction, marine scientific research is subject to different principles. The areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) are all parts of the sea that are not included in the exclusive economic zone, in the territorial sea or in the internal waters of a State, or in the archipelagic waters of an archipelagic State (the high seas) and the seabed and ocean floor and subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (the Area). The international area of the deep seabed is subject to a specific regime set out in Part XI of the UNLOSC, which grants to the soil, subsoil thereof and the mineral resources the status of common heritage of mankind, and places related activities under the control and administration of the International Seabed Authority. Pursuant to Part XI, marine scientific research in the international seabed is encouraged and promoted, but can only occur under the auspices of the Authority and in accordance with this specific regime. However, bioprospecting as such is excluded from this regime and fall under the umbrella of the freedom of the high seas. The freedoms of the high seas  are proclaimed by the UNCLOS in Part VII and include the freedom of scientific research. But while the UNCLOS was still protecting such freedoms, this last decade has seen policy processes occurring at the United Nations level that tend towards framing and regulating scientific research in the high seas, reducing the extent of that secular tradition. In 2015 the United Nations General Assembly decided to launch the development of an international legally binding instrument under the UNCLOS on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of ABNJ. This new binding instrument shall address, amongst others, the topic of “the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of ABNJ, in particular, together and as a whole, marine GRs, including questions on the sharing of benefits” (Resolution 69/292). The diplomatic process is undergoing and 4 meeting of a Preparatory Committee are being held in 2016 to prepare for the eventual negotiation of the implementing agreement regulating marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction. If and once adopted this agreement will have further implications for scientists willing to access and use GRs coming from ABNJ.