An Earth Law Framework for Marine Protected Areas

Adopting a holistic, systems and rights-based approach to ocean governance.

After three months of extensive analysis and research and a three month 'global call for inputs,' ELC releases the Earth Law Framework for Marine Protected Areas, that serves as a guideline for how to evolve ocean protection to include the rights of nature.

Marine protected areas can play an important role in protecting and restoring ocean health. A unifying thread behind an effective marine protected area, is the existence of an effective framework, or legal structure, providing the basis for effective “protection and enforcement of rights and responsibilities.”[i] 

What does legal rights for the ocean mean? Read more with responses to frequently asked questions.  

The Earth Law framework goes beyond the traditional methods of “resource” management[ii] to provide a clear legal mandate for managing protected areas as part of a system,[iii] and as part of the whole that humans are also a part of.

Together we can ensure a healthy and thriving ocean.

U.N. Ocean Conference Testimony

ELC presented a “Call for Action” to governments around the world in June 2017 to incorporate nature's (ocean) rights into their legal systems.  That testimony garnered the support of over 60 organizations from 32 countries (which remains open to signatories).  To add your voice to this ongoing initiative email

The ocean covers over seventy percent of our planet, generates over fifty percent of the oxygen, regulates climate and provides food and jobs for millions of people. Over-fishing, pollution and habitat destruction has led to a global decline in marine biodiversity of 49%, roughly half of what it was 50 years ago. With climate change expected to exacerbate the decline of marine ecosystem health, the time is now to ensure we protect this vital part of our planet, the source of life.

ELC’s ‘Ocean Rights-based Governance’ initiative advances ocean stewardship by promoting governance centered on the Ocean’s well-being and guided by principles of sustainability, ecosystem, precaution and interconnectedness. The Ocean influences our climate, and in turn, our climate effects ocean and coastal communities. Accordingly, the program aims to not only establish protection for coastal communities and marine ecosystems, but to ensure these areas are fully protected and effectively managed. ELC’s objectives to ensure this outcome include:

Objective 1: Creating a holistic and ocean rights-based model legislation for ocean law and policy.

Objective 2: Establishing marine protected areas and sanctuaries, and securing legal rights for these areas.

Objective 3: Passing rights of nature laws in coastal communities, focusing on sustainability and proactive management.

Objective 4: Ensuring international treaty laws reflect the inherent rights of the ocean (such as through the Marine Biodiversity Treaty for the High Seas and Beyond, currently under negotiation).


Read Our Blogs 

And learn more about our initiatives, or contact Michelle Bender, Ocean Rights Manager:


Other Information

  • Click here to hear Michelle Bender, Ocean Rights Manager from Earth Law Center speak about our ocean rights initiatives. We're launching the final Earth Law Framework for Marine Protected Areas at the largest environmental conference in the world: EARTHx in Dallas on Earth Day, April 22.
  • Ocean Protection Council Workshop, "Sharing your perspective on envisioning California’s Ocean Health" (Aug. 27, 2014)
  • Proceedings of the California Ocean Protection Council Science Advisory Team Workshop (June 11, 2014): Ocean Health as a Scientific Concept and Management Goal  
  • Dr. C. W. Fowler et al., "Pattern-based Control Rules for Fisheries Management," NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-AFSC-268 (Jan. 2014), illustrating that holistic fisheries management would result in significantly less take than current rules ("humans as predators")
  • Dr. Lori Marino et al., American Assn for the Advancement of Science, Annual Meeting,"Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Ethical and Policy Implications of Intelligence" (Vancouver, Feb. 2012)
  • Dr. R. Costanza and M. Mageau, "What is a healthy ecosystem?" Aquatic Ecology 33:105-115 (1999), asserting that a healthy ecosystem can maintain structure (organization) and function (vigor) over time in the face of external stress (resilience)

[i]   Car-Spaw, MPA Governance: Design and implement the appropriate legal, policy and social framework for long-term success, available at:

[ii]  Marc Mangel et al., Principles for the Conservation of Wild Living Resources, Ecological Applications, vol. 6, no. 2, 342 (1996), available at:

[iii] Barbara Lausche, Guidelines for Protected Areas Legislation, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, 20 (2011), available at: