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IMO and its role in protecting the world's oceans


​​Shipping is a key user of the oceans, delivering more than 80% of world trade, taking ferry passengers to their destinations and carrying millions of tourists on cruises.

As the United Nations agency responsible for developing and adopting measures to improve the safety and security of international shipping and to prevent pollution from ships, IMO has an integral role in meeting the targets set out in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
Click for article: The Role of the International Maritime Organization in Preventing the Pollution of the World's Oceans from Ships and Shipping (UN Chronicle)

 Prevention of pollution from ships

​The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, universally known as MARPOL, is the key treaty adopted by IMO to prevent and minimise pollution from shipping. 

MARPOL addresses pollution by oil from ships (covered in Annex I); also noxious liquid substances, such as chemicals, carried in bulk (Annex II); harmful substances carried in packaged form (Annex III); sewage discharges into the sea (Annex IV); and the disposal at sea of ship-generated garbage (Annex V).

Annex VI deals with atmospheric pollution from ships. In 2011, IMO became the first international regulator for a transport sector to adopt globally-binding energy-efficiency requirements, which apply to all ships globally, regardless of trading pattern or flag State, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping.

Other treaties address anti-fouling systems used on ships, the transfer of alien species by ships’ ballast water and the environmentally sound recycling of ships.

50 years together  - over the past five decades, IMO, governments and industry have worked together to achieve a dramatic and sustained reduction in major oil spills from ships; and have established effective systems for preparedness and response if there is an incident and created a comprehensive mechanism for providing compensation to those affected. Click to view the timeline and panels from an exhibition at IMO Headquarters.

 Special Areas

​MARPOL recognizes the need for more stringent requirements to manage and protect so-called Special Areas, due to their ecology and their sea traffic.

A total of 19 Special Areas have been adopted. They include enclosed or semi-enclosed seas, such as the Mediterranean Sea, Baltic Sea, Black Sea and Red Sea areas, and much larger ocean expanses such as the Southern South Africa waters and the Western European waters.

This recognition of special areas, alongside global regulation, is a clear indication of a strong IMO awareness of – and total commitment to – the fundamental importance of protecting and preserving the world's seas and oceans as vital life support systems for all peoples.

The Antarctic has enjoyed Special Area status since 1992. Oily discharges into the sea and garbage disposal overboard are totally prohibited. In addition, a total ban on the carriage or use of heavy fuel oils took effect on 1 August 2011, under a new MARPOL Annex I regulation.

 Protecting the Arctic and Antarctic

Polar waters benefit from special measures under the IMO Polar Code, which entered into force on 1 January 2017 for ships operating in both Antarctic and Arctic waters.

Search and rescue_polar film_SMALL.jpg

 Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas

​IMO has a process to designate Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (PSSAs), which are subject to associated protective measures such as mandatory ship-routeing systems. There are currently 15 areas (plus two extensions) protected in this way, including those covering UNESCO World Heritage Marine Sites, such as the Great Barrier Reef (Australia), the Galápagos Archipelago (Ecuador), the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (United States), and the Wadden Sea (Denmark, Germany, Netherlands).

This long-established practice of designating Special Areas and PSSAs fully supports the SDG 14 target to increase coverage of marine protected areas.

 Protecting marine biodiversity

​IMO’s work to support marine biodiversity includes measures to prevent the spread of potentially invasive aquatic organisms.

Click for information on ballast water management (BWM) and biofouling.  

IMO participates in the preparatory Committee established to develop an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. Read more here.

 Protecting marine mammals from ship strikes

IMO’s work on ship safety and prevention of pollution supports the protection of marine mammals.

IMO has adopted various ship routeing measures to protect whales and other cetaceans from ship strikes during breeding seasons.

Click for the article: Routing for Whales.

 Underwater noise

A significant portion of the underwater noise generated by human activity may be related to commercial shipping. The international community recognizes
that underwater-radiated noise from commercial ships may have both short and long-term negative consequences on marine life, especially marine mammals. 

IMO has issued guidance on reducing underwater noise from commercial shipping, to address adverse impacts on marine life. 

 Partnerships for the oceans – the Glo-X partnership projects

​IMO, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) have pioneered the “Glo-X model” of program design and implementation for marine environmental and energy efficiency projects.

These global partnership programmes have resulted in legal, policy and institutional reforms in over 70 countries, including SIDS and LDCs. They are supporting technology market transformations which, in the case of ballast water treatment, resulted in creation of a new market valued at over US$50 billion.

GEF-UNDP-IMO projects include:

  • the Global Ballast Water Management Project (GloBallast)
  • the Global Maritime Energy Efficiency Partnerships Project (GloMEEP)
  • the Global Biofouling Project (GloFouling).

IMO is also executing the IMO-European Union Global Maritime Technology Cooperation Centre Network Project (GMN).  

 Climate change mitigation

​Increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can lead to ocean acidification.

In 2011, IMO became the first international regulator for a transport sector to adopt globally-binding energy-efficiency requirements, which apply to all ships globally, regardless of trading pattern or flag State, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping. The mandatory energy-efficiency measures to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from international shipping, under Annex VI of IMO's pollution prevention treaty (MARPOL), came into force in 2013.

Furthermore, IMO is engaging in global capacity-building projects to support the implementation of those regulations and encourage innovation and technology transfer.

Read more about IMO's efforts to reduce shipping emissions here.  

Watch three short videos which explain IMO's energy-efficiency requirements and highlight capacity-building as a way to promote uptake of the measures.


 Dumping of wastes at sea, carbon capture, geoengineering

​While MARPOL specifically targets accidental and operational discharges from ship operations, IMO also actively addresses marine pollution from land-based sources, albeit indirectly, through the London Dumping Convention and Protocol on the dumping of wastes and other matter at sea. The London Protocol, adopted in 1996, adopts a precautionary approach, prohibiting the discharge of wastes at sea except for a few on a permitted list, such as dredged material.

The London Convention/Protocol regime also contributes to climate change mitigation by regulating for carbon capture and sequestration in subsea geological formations and providing regulations and guidance on how to assess proposals for marine geoengineering. Read more here.

 Marine Litter


Clean ships, clean seas

Marine litter presents a huge problem in our oceans, with some scientists warning that, by 2050, the quantity of plastics in the oceans will outweigh fish.  

But IMO and others have been taking action to address the problem, including regulating the discharge of garbage from ships and supporting research work. 

Read more about IMO’s work on marine litter here


​The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was adopted in 1982. It lays down a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world's oceans and seas establishing rules governing all uses of the oceans and their resources. It embodies in one instrument traditional rules for the uses of the oceans and at the same time introduces new legal concepts and regimes and addresses new concerns. The Convention also provides the framework for further development of specific areas of the law of the sea.

Read more about IMO and UNCLOS and download Implications of UNCLOS for IMO.

 IMO at the UN Ocean Conference

In June 2017, IMO attended the UN Ocean Conference in New York, United States.

IMO highlighted its work to:

  • ensure safe and sustainable shipping on clean oceans; 

  • protect special areas and particularly sensitive sea areas; 

  • limit and restrict operational discharges and the dumping of wastes at sea; and

  • mitigate climate change. 

IMO participated in a number of key side events, reiterating its commitment to support Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly the SDG 14.

Secretary-General Kitack Lim delivered remarks during high-level panels and featured on UN Web TV.

Two major reports were launched, namely the "The SDGs - Exploring Maritime Opportunities" and a new IMO publication "The GloBallast Story".

In addition to the participation in the conference, IMO registered a number of voluntary commitments.

 Maritime safety and security for sustainable use of the oceans


IMO regulations for the safety of shipping and for maritime security help support the sustainable use of the oceans. 

Read more about IMO’s maritime safety regulations here.
Read more about IMO’s work on maritime security here