Decision-making processes

Management of marine pollution in New Zealand is undertaken under two international conventions and several Acts and Regulations.

International conventions

The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) is the main international convention covering prevention of pollution in the marine environment by ships from operational or accidental causes. The MARPOL Convention was adopted on 2 November 1973 and has updated by amendments through the years. The Convention includes regulations aimed at preventing and minimising pollution from ships - both accidental pollution and that from routine operations - and currently has six technical Annexes, which include Special Areas with strict controls on operational discharges. MARPOL is designed to prevent pollution from ships such as accidental oil spills from tankers, but also pollution caused by the discharge of chemicals, harmful substances, sewage and garbage (Figure 15.2). In addition, the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes or Other Matter prohibits the dumping of waste at sea except for a restricted group of materials. Even then, dumping is only permitted if there are no practical opportunities for reuse or recycling, and the effects of dumping on the marine environment will be minor. It is important that, New Zealand is synchronised with the International Maritime regulations, including MARPOL. 2866

Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA)

The RMA addresses the discharge of pollutants into the marine area within the territorial sea under Section 15. It includes provisions which:

  • Prohibit the dumping of radioactive matter from any ship or offshore installation, and the storage of any radioactive waste in the sea 2867
  • Require a resource consent to authorise the dumping of any waste from a ship or offshore installation or the incineration of any waste within the coastal marine area 2868
  • Require regulations, a rule in a plan or a resource consent to authorise the discharge of a harmful substance or a contaminant from a ship or offshore installation into water, land or air 2869

The MV Rena resource consent application which was publicly notified in July 2014, sought approval under the RMA for the wreck to be dumped or abandoned on Astrolabe Reef and for any potential future discharges from the wreck that might exceed the threshold in section 15B of the Act.

Rules in regional coastal plans can control shipping within the coastal marine area. This includes matters such as vessel speed, discharges, dumping waste and noise. For example, the Regional Plan: Coast for Otago recognises that a major source of noise in the coastal marine area is from the operation of ships, both commercial and recreational, and provides some a policy to manage the effects from this noise.

Resource Management (Marine Pollution) Regulations 1998

These regulations address pollution from vessels and offshore installations within the territorial sea. They are designed to implement the provisions of the International Conventions. The provisions include the following:

  • The incineration of any waste in a marine incineration facility is a prohibited activity
  • The discharge of plastics, dunnage, lining and packaging materials from a ship is prohibited
  • The discharge of garbage from any offshore installation is prohibited
  • The discharge of other ship garbage is permitted so long as the particle size is 25 millimetres or less and the discharge occurs at least three nautical miles from low water mark and more than 0.27 nautical miles from an offshore installation

A rule may only be included in a regional coastal plan for discharges included under the regulations if it increases the distances seaward or increases the depth specified for any area, or increases the distances from a marine farm, marine reserve or mātaitai reserve. A rule in a regional coastal plan cannot relax the requirements in the regulation.

Monitoring and enforcement of discharges from ships within the territorial sea (12 nautical miles) is undertaken by regional councils.  Councils also consider resource consents for the dumping of waste at sea within this zone. Such discharges and dumping within the EEZ is controlled by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA). This is described further in Chapter 3: EEZ Legislation and the RMA is discussed further in Chapter 2: Marine management.

Local Government Act 2002

Regional councils also control the movement of vessels under the Local Government Act. The legislation empowers the council to appoint a harbourmaster who general controls vessels within the harbour limits. 2871  The harbourmaster or a council enforcement officer can give directions for the purpose of ensuring navigation safety that regulate the entry, departure, navigation and mooring of a vessel. 2872  In addition, the council can make bylaws to regulate shipping, including controlling speed and navigational routes. 2873  These bylaws are, however, constrained to those aimed at achieving navigation safety rather than environmental outcomes directly.

The Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act 2012 (EEZ Act)

The EEZ Act regulates the discharges of harmful substances from offshore structures and production facilities on board mining ships and the dumping of waste within the EEZ and continental shelf. 

Maritime Transport Act 1994

Marine protection rules made under this Act provide for both marine safety and pollution prevention within the coastal marine area and EEZ. They deal with a wide range of matters pertaining to vessels including the design, construction and operation of vessels, discharges of oil and waste, collisions prevention and carriage of dangerous goods.

The Act provides for the protection of the marine environment from harmful substances. 2874  This includes a identifying harmful substances that are not to be discharged into the sea or seabed of the EEZ or Continental Shelf, requiring notification of arrival of a ship carrying oil or a noxious liquid substance, or the transfer of such substances. New Zealand operates a voluntary code for commercial vessels carrying oil or other harmful liquid substances in bulk. The code, implemented in 1993, makes recommendations to ship owners and masters on how to navigate inshore waters in an effort to reduce the likelihood of an incident and subsequent chances of pollution. Recommendations include keeping at least five nautical miles from the land, charted danger, or any outlying islands, until reaching the position where alteration is required to make port or depart the coast. Specific routing instructions are available for approaches to 14 of the main commercial ports throughout the country. The relatively low levels of shipping traffic around New Zealand make the implementation of a formal mandatory routing system unnecessary. 2875

In sensitive marine areas, the voluntary code can be superseded by a mandatory exclusion which provides the marine environment with the best protection from potential pollution or damage posed by shipping operations. 2876  “Areas to be avoided” are implemented under the United Nations Law Convention on the Law of the Sea and are recognised under international law. Vessels meeting certain criteria are prohibited from entering the waters within these areas. Within New Zealand, there are two such designated areas - the Three Kings Islands (a wildlife sanctuary off the northern tip of the North Island) and area off the north east coast including the Poor Knights islands. 2877  

The Three Kings Islands were declared as an area to be avoided in 1995, and all vessels exceeding 500 gross tonnes prohibited. The area stretching between Bream Head and Cape Brett and extending out to the Poor Knights Islands was identified as an area to be avoided in 2003. After two incidents when oily bilge water was released into the sea between the Poor Knights and the Tutukaka coast, threatening the area's world-renowned wildlife and marine ecology, the Poor Knights Islands ship restriction was set in place. A review by the Maritime Safety Association highlighted that the area has a high probability of an oil spill 2879  due to vessels transporting oil to and from the Marsden Point Oil Refinery, and sailing to and from the Port of Auckland. 2880  Within this area, any vessel greater than 45 metres in length is now prohibited. The only commercial ships exempt from this rule are fishing vessels that are engaged in fishing operations and barges under tow, provided the cargo is not oil or other harmful substances.

Maritime New Zealand has responsibility for marine oil spill response planning. The Marine Oil Spill Response Strategy 2006 (which is currently being updated) sets out the overarching framework for how Maritime New Zealand and its partners will respond to a marine oil spill.  This is funded by an Oil Pollution Levy payable by those sectors whose activities raise the risk of an oil spill. Maritime New Zealand maintains a response capability to counter an oil spill of 3,500 tonnes. Where a larger incident occurs arrangement are in place to secure overseas assistance. 2881

Oil spill preparedness is funded by an industry levy, the Oil Pollution Levy, which is required under the Maritime Transport Act. The Levy is collected to run New Zealand’s maritime oil pollution preparedness and response system. The Oil Pollution Levy applies to all commercial vessels over 100 gross tonnes and 24 metres or more in length (expect those operating in fresh water), offshore oil installations, exploration wells and oil pipelines. 2882  The intention behind Maritime New Zealand’s oil pollution preparedness and response is that the polluter pays. In circumstances where the polluter is not identified, the Levy is used to pay expenses from reserves set aside for that purpose. 2883

Biosecurity Act 1993

The Ministry for Primary Industries administers the requirements for the discharge in New Zealand of ships’ ballast water from overseas. This is under the umbrella of the International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments, which was adopted in 2004 but has yet to come into force.

An Import Health Standard for ships’ ballast water from all countries has been issued under the Biosecurity Act 1993.  This provides that no ballast water can be discharged into New Zealand waters without the permission of an inspector.  Provision is also made for the ballast water to be treated by an approved system, or to be discharged into an approved onshore treatment system.

The Ministry for Primary Industries has recently issued a Craft Risk Management Standard for Biofouling on Vessels Arriving to New Zealand.  This requires vessels to arrive with “clean hulls” which has been defined in the Standard.  It specifies the requirements to be met for the effective management of risks associated with biofouling on the submerged parts of vessels that have come from or recently visited coastal waters of another country.

This aligns with the 2011 International Maritime Organization Guidelines for Biofouling Management which means that much commercial shipping is already compliant. This Standard comes into force on 15 May 2018. The Ministry for Primary Industries will be using the four-year lead in period to work with vessel operators and communicate the different measures available to shipping lines and other parties to ensure compliance.  Marine pest management at a regional level is managed by regional councils. These are discussed in more detail in Chapter 5: Marine biosecurity.


  2. RMA 1991, section 15(c)

  3. RMA 1991, section 15(a)

  4. RMA 1991, section 15(b)

  5. Maritime Transport Act 1994, section 33D

  6. Maritime Transport Act 1994, section 33F

  7. Maritime Transport Act 1994, section 33M

  8. Maritime Transport Act 1994, Part 19







Last updated at 2:11PM on February 25, 2015