International Conventions

There are various international conventions, most notably the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation (OPRC 1990), which is described below, set up to facilitate oil spill response and preparedness. None, however, are specifically dedicated to the oiled wildlife aspect of response and preparedness.

While most existing conventions do not explicitly address oiled wildlife issues, they also do not exclude them. In Europe progress is being, made through proposals and amendments to several of the European Regional Agreements, in integrating oil-affected wildlife into existing response plans. Under these amendments international agreements to facilitate mutual assistance in large incident responses include a wildlife component, allowing for international tools and facilities to be used for wildlife response. For example, the Claims Manual of the IOPC Funds Convention makes particular reference to the possibilities for being compensated for the costs of wildlife response (see the Compensation section for more details.)

EU Member States also work together to improve preparedness for oil spill incidents via programmes run by DG Environment and the European Maritime Safety Agency. More details on these organisations are given under the preparedness section of this website.

In Europe, Regional Conventions have started encouraging their Contracting Parties to develop oiled wildlife response plans and have agreed instruments that allow international cooperation in the case of incidents. The number of countries that have agreed oiled wildlife response plans is growing.

OPRC 1990

Under OPRC 1990 governments of coastal states are required to establish measures for dealing with pollution incidents, either nationally or in co-operation with other countries. A total of 100 countries (including the majority of European coastal states) are currently signatory to the Convention, which calls for the establishment of stockpiles of oil spill combating equipment, holding exercises and development of detailed plans for dealing with pollution incidents.

Parties to the convention are also required to provide assistance to others in the event of a pollution emergency and provision is made for the reimbursement of any assistance provided. The Convention provides for the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to play an important coordinating role.

In Europe, OPRC 1990 requirements are also implemented via the Regional Agreements for protection of the regional seas:

OPRC-HNS Protocol

In 2000, Members of the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds (OPRC) adopted a protocol on Preparedness, Response and Co-operation to pollution Incidents by Hazardous and Noxious Substances (OPRC-HNS Protocol) which came into force in 2007. The OPRC-HNS Protocol defines HNS as:

“any substance other than oil, which, if introduced into the marine environment is likely to create hazards to human health, to harm living resources and marine life, to damage amenities or to interfere with other legitimate uses of the sea.”

This is a somewhat broader interpretation of hazardous and noxious substances than that used by the HNS Convention.

The OPRC-HNS Protocol addresses preparedness and response measures for dealing with HNS spills. States party to the OPRC-HNS Protocol are required to manage pollution incidents, either within the country or through international cooperation. They are also required to create a national system for responding to HNS pollution events which includes the designation of a competent national authority, a national operations contact point (or points), an authority to act on behalf of the State in requests for assistance or decisions to give assistance to another Member State, and a national contingency plan.

The Parties must also have equipment pre-positioned to allow for a minimum response to HNS events, based on the level of risk near the location. Regular training exercises for pollution response are also required and ships registered to Member States must have a “Pollution Incident Emergency Plan” on board.


The International Convention for the Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS), one of the oldest laws of the sea, was first adopted in 1914 after the Titanic disaster. It has changed significantly over the years but the main objective of this convention has always been to “specify minimum standards for construction, maintenance and operation of ships, compatible with their safety.”
The most recent version was adopted in 1974, however, since that time there have been nearly 50 amendments to the document. The convention is, therefore, most correctly referred to as ‘SOLAS, 1974, as amended’.

Various chapters of the convention address construction, fire safety, life saving gear, communication systems, navigation, maritime safety and security. Most important in terms of HNS transport, SOLAS regulates construction and equipping of vessels which carry dangerous goods. It also regulates how such goods are stowed and labelled, requiring them to be carried in compliance with the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG Code). Both SOLAS and MARPOL require compliance with the International Bulk Chemical Code’s standards for safe transport of bulk liquid dangerous chemicals by sea.
In 2010 new standards were adopted for oil tankers and bulk carriers, requiring that these vessels have ‘adequate strength, integrity and stability to minimize the risk of loss of the ship or pollution to the marine environment due to structural failure.’


The International Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Ships (MARPOL Convention) was developed in response to a series of tanker incidents during 1976-1977. MARPOL’s regulations were developed to help prevent and minimise discharges during normal operations in addition to addressing accident-related pollution. Since coming into force in 1987, MARPOL has been amended a number of times.

MARPOL’s Annex II Regulations separate noxious liquid substances carried in bulk into four categories, each of which specifies whether and, if allowed, how these products may be discharged into the sea during tank cleaning or de-ballasting operations.  

  • Category X: Substances which present a major hazard to either marine resources (which includes wildlife) or human health and are, therefore prohibited from being discharged.
  • Category Y: Substances which present a hazard to marine resources or human health or may cause harm to amenities or other legitimate uses of the sea, therefore justify limitations on quality or quantity of discharge.
  • Category Z: Substances which present a minor hazard to either marine resources or human health and therefore are subject to less stringent restrictions on quality and quantity of discharge.
  • Other Substances: Substances which present no harm to marine resources, human health, amenities or other legitimate uses of the sea. These substances are not subject to any MARPOL requirements.

Annex I is devoted to oil pollution regulations, Annex III regulates harmful substances carried by sea in packaged form, Annex IV covers sewage discharge, Annex V addresses discharge of garbage and Annex VI sets limits on air pollution from ships.

Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Pollution (GESAMP)

The Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Pollution (GESAMP) provides advice on prevention, reduction and control of the degradation of the marine environment to a group of international agencies. GESAMP developed a guidance document on the Hazard Evaluation Procedure for Chemical Substances Carried by Ships for MARPOL 73/78. The latest revision of the GESAMP Hazard Profile was updated in 2002 to fall in line with the Globally Harmonised System for Hazard Classification and Communication (GHS).

The GESAMP guidance document assesses impacts on the environment through bioaccumulation, biodegradation and levels of aquatic toxicity. It also considers acute and chronic toxicity to humans and other mammals. Finally, chemicals are assessed for their potential to taint seafood, interfere with coastal amenities and for possible physical effects on wildlife and benthic (bottom of the sea) habitats.

To be listed for potential interference with wildlife and benthic habitats GESAMP takes into account the physical behaviour of the substance when in contact with sea water, such as the effects of viscous, slick-forming substances on marine wildlife. This allows the IMO to regulate some substances that would not otherwise be likely to be identified as hazardous.