Life Below Water and International Law

Melbourne Law School

Icon of SDG 14: Life Below Water, Icon of SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions and Icon of SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals

The oceans have major significance for people around the world as a source of food and livelihoods and as a cultural place of wonder and exploration. Yet the impacts of human practices are increasingly destructive.

Making the blue economy sustainable through international law

Over a third of fish stocks are fished at biologically unsustainable levels. Mass extinctions of marine living resources are projected for the middle of the century, caused by overexploitation and the effects of climate change, pollution and plastics. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and related instruments provide the legal foundation for cooperation between states and other actors to address these issues.

Professor Margaret Young of the Melbourne Law School researches international law’s role in addressing environmental, social and economic goals. Her work covers a broad range of global environmental issues, including climate change, deforestation, plastics pollution, wildlife trade and biodiversity conservation. This work supports international organisations and non-governmental organisations, including the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). Her policy briefs are translated to multiple languages. She regularly addresses diplomats and delegates at the WTO, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and other bodies.

In 2021–2022, Professor Young and Melbourne Law School Senior Research Fellow Mr Sam Johnston are working with the World Bank, the United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea (DOALOS) and the International Seabed Authority to deliver a training program to government officials, staff of international organisations, and other stakeholders. Online modules address the blue economy and international law.

Navigating the waters between international regimes

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14; Life Below Water, includes targets to sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to achieve healthy and productive oceans. Targets include (1) the effective regulation of harvesting and an end to overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and destructive fishing practices; (2) the prohibition of certain forms of fisheries subsidies; and (3) the conservation of at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, consistent with national and international law.

Crates of fish at a market
An end to overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and destructive fishing practices is a target under SDG 14: Life Below Water.

The hurdles to achieve SDG 14 can be overcome by political will but support is also needed on legal issues such as interpreting rules of treaty, arrangements for dispute settlement and enforcement. Academics can help by enhancing understanding, at both a theoretical and practical level, of the interaction between international regimes.

Professor Young’s award-winning research on the interaction between the United Nations' Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the World Trade Organization (WTO) provides understanding of how international regimes interact even without identical membership or consent by sovereign states.

Governance beyond national jurisdiction

In addition to contributing to theories of international law-making, Professor Young’s work has practical application. For example, her trade law analysis provides decision makers with tools to ensure trade bans on fisheries’ products implicated in IUU  fishing are compatible with existing WTO rules on non-discrimination. Her work has informed the crafting of new prohibitions on fisheries subsidies while recognising the need for special and differential treatment for countries. She has published recommendations about the conservation of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, a current negotiating topic before the United Nations.

Professor Young provides legal context to inform evolving ideas about ocean governance for a sustainable future. Such issues include proposals to close the high seas to fishing, human health-focused studies about optimum diets for sustainability, and the risk of zoonotic diseases in global supply chains, an issue of increasing importance since the emergence of COVID-19.

Aligning with the SDGs

In addition to SDG 14; Life Below Water, this research agenda enacts many of the intentions of SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions and SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals, because it promotes and demonstrates the power of the rule of law at national and international levels and enhances policy coherence for sustainable development. It helps advance mechanisms by which effective, accountable and transparent institutions can be established for the conservation and sustainable use of shared resources.


A woman speaking into a microphone on a panel, seated next to a man on laptop
Professor Margaret Young – Melbourne Law School. Pictured on right next to Former UNCTAD Ambassador Guillermo Valles Galmes at the Expert Group Workshop on Oceans and Fisheries, ICTSD, Geneva 2014.