Ecology Law Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 4 (1991), pp. 719-777. Reprinted by permission of the Regents of the University of California.


The vessel-source pollution provisions of UNCLOS III have become the reference point for virtually all discussions of marine environmental jurisdiction and, although the Convention is not yet in force, have arguably become norms of customary international law. Moreover, these environmental provisions are likely to come under increased scrutiny and assume even greater importance should the disputes over the seabed mining provisions of the Convention be resolved. Thus far, these disputes have stood in the way of ratification by many advanced industrialized countries, including the United States. The U.S. Congress recently rejected several international conventions dealing with oil spills on the grounds that they were too weak. Unless environmentalists are satisfied that UNCLOS III adequately protects the oceans, vessel-source pollution could emerge as a new obstacle to U.S. ratification.

This article begins with a brief introduction to the problem of vessel-source pollution and discusses the role of flag, coastal, and port state jurisdictions (part I). It then reviews the law prior to UNCLOS III and explores the changes made by the Convention, suggesting that in many respects UNCLOS III retained the preexisting jurisdictional rules (part II). The article then critiques UNCLOS III by illustrating both its ambiguities and the ways in which it favors maritime over coastal state interests (part III). The conclusion of the article argues that additional rules and standards, both substantive and jurisdictional, are needed to protect the marine environment and forestall unilateral coastal state action (part IV).