The Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs (OPA) within the Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES) formulates and implements U.S. policy related to the conduct of marine scientific research in the territorial sea (up to 12 nautical miles from shore), in the exclusive economic zone (from 12 to 200 nautical miles from shore), and on the continental shelf (from 12 to, in some cases, beyond 200 nautical miles from shore).

In accordance with the Law of the Sea Convention, coastal States have the right to regulate and authorize marine scientific research in these maritime areas and, in all instances, consent of the coastal State is required. The Law of the Sea Convention further provides that “appropriate official channels” be used to obtain consent for marine scientific research. OPA serves as the appropriate official channel for U.S. (public- or privately funded) researchers seeking foreign coastal State consent as well as for foreign researchers seeking U.S. consent. On an annual basis, OPA manages approximately 400 applications for foreign coastal State consent and 70 applications for U.S. consent. OPA also maintains an archive of application and consent records that dates back to 1990.

While the Law of the Sea Convention does not define marine scientific research (MSR), the term generally refers to those activities undertaken in the ocean to expand knowledge of the marine environment and its processes. The United States has identified some marine data collection activities that are not marine scientific research. These include prospecting for and exploration of natural resources; hydrographic surveys (for enhancing the safety of navigation); military activities including military surveys; activities related to the laying and operation of submarine cables; environmental monitoring and assessment of marine pollution pursuant to section 4 of Part XII of the Convention; the collection of marine meteorological data and other routine ocean observations - such as those used for monitoring and forecasting of ocean state, natural hazard warnings and weather forecasts, and climate prediction - including through the voluntary ocean observation programs of the Joint Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission-World Meteorological Organization Technical Commission on Oceanography and Marine Meteorology (JCOMM), the Global Drifter Program, and the Argo program; and activities directed at objects of an archeological and historical nature found at sea.

U.S. policies regarding marine scientific research within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and the territorial sea of the United States were established with Presidential Proclamations 5030 and 5928, and the Presidential Statement on U.S. Oceans Policy of March 10, 1983. Consistent with those policies and applicable U.S. domestic law, the advance consent of the United States is required for MSR conducted within the U.S. territorial sea, but generally is not required for MSR conducted within the U.S. exclusive economic zone. However, pursuant to U.S. domestic law, advance consent is required for MSR within the U.S. exclusive economic zone where:

  • Any portion of the MSR within the U.S. EEZ is conducted within a national marine sanctuary, a marine national monument, or other marine protected areas;
  • Any portion of the MSR within the U.S. EEZ involves the study of marine mammals or endangered species;
  • Any portion of the MSR within the U.S. EEZ requires taking commercial quantities of marine resources;
  • Any portion of the MSR within the U.S. EEZ involves contact with the U.S. continental shelf; or
  • Any portion of the MSR within the U.S. EEZ involves ocean dumping research.

It is also U.S. policy not to unreasonably deny or delay consent for marine scientific research. The United States reserves the right to participate in research activities conducted in the U.S. territorial sea and/or EEZ, and on the U.S. continental shelf.

All applications for consent must be submitted to OPA via the Research Application Tracking System (RATS), an online data management system designed to improve the transparency and efficiency of OPA’s implementation of the marine scientific research consent regime. Application and reporting forms recommended by the United Nations Division of Ocean Affairs and Law of the Sea publication Marine Scientific Research: A Revised Guide to the Implementation of the Relevant Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provide the basis of RATS data entry requirements.

More information regarding U.S. marine scientific research policy and application procedures is available by contacting OPA at (202) 647-0240.

Useful References