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Marine environment protection legislation, regulations and conventions

Protection of New Zealand’s marine environment from pollution is provided by regulations, standards, legislation and international conventions. This is part of the global framework for combating marine pollution.

This page provides an overview of the marine environment protections covering New Zealand. For the specific requirements that apply to vessels, installations and ports, please use the link below.

New Zealand’s protection regulations, standards and legislation

New Zealand’s marine environment protection legislation is provided by the Resource Management Act, the Maritime Transport Act 1994 and the Exclusive Economic Zone and Extended Continental Shelf Act. There are associated coastal plans, marine protection rules and regulations under these three acts that provide much of the detail on marine environment protection legislation.

The overarching goal of the rules is to limit the input of harmful substances into the sea, from for example:

  • oil (cargo and fuel for ships’ engines)
  • chemicals from the cargo tanks of tankers carrying industrial bulk liquids
  • oil and chemicals from offshore minerals activities
  • sewage from passengers and crew
  • garbage, such as food scraps from ships’ galleys.

Compliance and enforcement

Maritime New Zealand monitors and enforces compliance of ships with marine protection legislation beyond the New Zealand territorial sea. Visiting foreign ships must also meet the international standards adopted by New Zealand. Maritime New Zealand also assesses applications for dumping of wastes on the high seas by New Zealand flagged vessels.

The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) manages environmental effects from offshore minerals activities that take place over the New Zealand exclusive economic zone or extended continental shelf. The EPA also regulates the dumping of waste at sea within these zones.

Within 12 miles from shore (the New Zealand territorial sea), discharges from ships and offshore installations are regulated by the Resource Management Act 1991 and regional coastal plans and marine pollution regulations made under this Act. Monitoring and enforcement is carried out by regional councils. Councils also consider any applications for permits for dumping of waste at sea within this zone.

Biosecurity New Zealand, under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, administers the Biosecurity Act. This act sets out the requirements for the discharge in New Zealand waters of ships’ ballast water from overseas.

International marine environment protection conventions

The key international marine environment protection conventions recognised in New Zealand law are as follows.

MARPOL 73/78

This is the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973, as modified by the Protocol of 1978 relating thereto (known as MARPOL 73/78).

This convention has technical annexes regulating the following matters:

  • Prevention of pollution by oil – annex I
  • Control of pollution by noxious liquid substances – annex II
  • Prevention of pollution by harmful substances carried in packaged form – annex III
  • Prevention of pollution by sewage from ships – annex IV
  • Prevention of pollution by garbage – annex V
  • Prevention of air pollution from ships – annex VI.

New Zealand law gives effect to annex I, II, III, and V and thus regulates discharges of oil, chemicals, marine pollutants (in packaged form), and garbage. Annex IV is given effect for ships in New Zealand that are leaving for and coming from the Antarctic sea area only.

There is no international convention comprehensively regulating the environmental standards of offshore installations. While some MARPOL controls apply to installation management of oily waste from machinery spaces and garbage, the more significant waste streams are left to national regulation. Examples of these include: the discharge of production water, offshore processing drainage and displacement water. The New Zealand controls for these types of discharge are in line with international good practice.

The 1996 Protocol

The 1996 Protocol refers to the Protocol to the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, 1972 (known as the London Protocol)

This convention prohibits the dumping of all waste except for a restricted group of materials and then only when it can be established that there are no practical opportunities for reuse or recycling, and that the effects of dumping on the marine environment will be minor.

Wastes under the protocol comprise:

  • dredged material
  • sewage sludge
  • fish waste from industrial fish processing operations
  • vessels and platforms and other man-made structures at sea
  • inert, inorganic geological material
  • organic material of natural origin
  • bulky items primarily comprising iron, steel, concrete and similar harmless materials
  • CO2 streams from CO2 capture processes for sequestration.

In New Zealand jurisdiction for assessing applications for dumping of wastes at sea is separated across three levels of regulators. The regulator is as follows:

  • within the territorial sea the regional council,
  • within the exclusive economic zone and over the extended continental shelf the regulator is the Environment Protection Authority
  • on the high seas from a New Zealand flagged vessel, Maritime New Zealand.


The International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation 1990 (OPRC) requires parties to take all appropriate measures to prepare for and respond to an oil pollution incident. 

As a party to OPRC, New Zealand is required to:

  • Ensure that the following groups have oil pollution emergency plans;
    • ships entitled to fly New Zealand’s flag
    • operators of offshore units under New Zealand’s jurisdiction
    • operators of sea ports and oil handling facilities under New Zealand’s jurisdiction
  • Establish reporting obligations for masters, maritime inspectors, persons in charge of an offshore unit, persons in charge of sea ports and oil-handling facilities and the pilots of civil aircraft in relation to discharges of oil at sea;
  • Establish procedures for responding to reports of discharges of oil at sea;
  • Establish systems for responding to discharges of oil at sea;
  • Cooperate with other parties and provide advisory services, technical support and equipment for the purpose of responding to an oil pollution incident, when the severity of such incident so justifies, upon the request of any party affected or likely to be affected;
  • Cooperate with other parties on the exchange of research and development;
  • Provide support to parties requesting technical assistance; and
  • Develop bilateral and multilateral agreements for oil pollution preparedness and response.