The Regional Seas programmes have several common elements.

The process of establishing a regional programme usually begins with the development of an Action Plan outlining the strategy and substance of a regionally coordinated programme, aimed at the protection of the common body of water.

The Action Plan is based on the region's particular environmental concerns and challenges as well as its socio-economic and political situation. It may cover issues ranging from chemical wastes and coastal development to oil spill preparedness and response and the conservation of marine species and ecosystems.

A typical Regional Seas Action Plan consists of the following chapters:

Environmental Assessment: Monitoring and assessment activities provide a scientific basis for setting regional priorities and policies. Regional institutions and experts participate in a programme to determine the causes of environmental problems as well as their magnitude and impact on the region. These may include scientific baseline studies; research and monitoring of the sources, levels and effects of marine pollutants; ecosystem studies; and studies of coastal and marine activities. Assessments are also made of the social and economic factors that relate to environmental degradation and the status and effectiveness of national environmental legislation.

Environmental Management: Each regional programme includes a wide range of environmental management activities such as cooperative projects on training in Environmental Impact Assessment; management of coastal lagoons, estuaries and mangrove ecosystems; control of industrial, agricultural and domestic wastes; formulation of contingency plans for dealing with pollution emergencies; etc.

Environmental Legislation: An umbrella convention most often provides the legal framework for an Action Plan. It also expresses the political will and legal commitment of the Governments to tackle their common environmental problems, acting both together and individually. Conventions are put into practice ‘on-the-ground’ through protocols dealing with specific problems – oil spills, response to emergencies, land-based pollution, and conservation of wildlife and habitats, for example. In some regions the convention has emerged as the centrepiece of the programme.

Institutional Arrangements: Governments agree upon an organization to act as the permanent or interim secretariat of the Action Plan, usually called the Regional Coordinating Unit (RCU). Governments also decide how often to hold intergovernmental meetings to review progress, approve new activities and discuss the budget.

Financial Arrangements: UNEP, together with selected United Nations and other organizations, provides “seed money” or catalytic financing in the early stages of the regional programmes. Ultimately, the Governments of the region are expected to assume financial responsibility. Government financing may be channelled through regional trust funds administered by the organization responsible for secretariat functions of the Action Plan (often initially UNEP, later the RCU or a new independent regional organization).