Lifelines: Canada's East Coast Fisheries

Law Of The Sea – The Exclusive Economic Zone

B. Applebaum, BA LLM



1. The global acceptance in the mid-1970s of the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone, the "EEZ", must be considered one of the most significant events in the history of international maritime law. As civilization had developed States had effectively controlled, off their maritime coasts, only a very narrow belt of waters, restricted over recent centuries to a territorial sea limited to 3 or 4 nautical miles (12 in more recent years, for some countries). The legal regime of "high seas" and "freedom of the seas" had applied to all waters outside the territorial sea. Virtually overnight, in historical terms, the transition was made to a new legal regime under which every coastal State has control, for economic purposes and for its own benefit, over a broad swath of waters beyond its territorial sea to a distance of 200 nautical miles.

2. The waters within 200 nautical miles, embracing some 30% of the world's oceans and seas[1] produced more than 90% of the world's marine fish catches, which totalled approximately 66 million metric tons in 1973.[2] These waters were also superjacent to almost all contemporarily exploitable undersea oil and gas deposits. By the 1970s the undersea area containing these deposits already belonged to the adjacent coastal States through general acceptance in the period after World War II of the international legal concept of the continental shelf (with undetermined outer limits) as the territory of the coastal State. For the future the waters within 200 nautical miles, because of their coastal proximity, were the most likely source of economic benefits to become available through new ocean uses, such as energy production.

3. These waters had been part of the high seas, open to the vessels of any State to use and exploit largely as they chose, subject, with minor exceptions, only to the power of their "flag State" to make and enforce laws to control their activities. That this would remain so for the indefinite future must have seemed likely to many people in mid-century, bearing in mind that at two United Nations conferences on the law of sea, UNCLOS I in 1958 and UNCLOS II in 1960, the world community could not agree to allow extension of jurisdiction even to a 12 nautical mile limit worldwide for coastal State control.[3] Suddenly this was all changed.

4. The purpose of this paper is to provide a very general overview of the context for this change, the events and causes that led to it, the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea that began in 1973 and precipitated it, the Canadian perspective, the contents of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, "UNCLOS"[4] that emerged from this conference and codified the EEZ together with other elements of and changes in the law of the sea, and major problems that remained or developed after the EEZ came into effect and UNCLOS was finalized.

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