Who Owns the Oceans?

| |

The idea of ownership over the world’s oceans has come into contention for many hundreds of years; many nations’ control of parts of the high seas often brought them great success in building their empires, improving technology and facilitating trade throughout the world. In a more modern sense the governance of the oceans is a matter of practicality as well as power- nations have to coordinate with each other to prevent mishaps, track ships and airplanes over oceans, and respect the international status of the world’s oceans while also minding the trade, fishing rights, and other factors.

Although the oceans are technically viewed as international zones, meaning no one country has jurisdiction over it all, there are regulations in place to help keep the peace and to essentially divide responsibility for the world’s oceans to various entities or countries around the world. The United Nations is the essential governing body over the world’s oceans and overseas major political, economic and environmental events that could affect this vital region.

In 1982 the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas was created after the third conference regarding the implementation of international law onto the oceans. This Convention was ratified in 1994 and was fully implemented that year when a 60th nation signed on to the Convention. While the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas might not be regarded as international law by some nations, it has remained the go-to body for policing of international waters, creating nautical policies, and more.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Seas states the different rights and regulations regarding specific nations’ rights to oceans. For instance, coastal states have jurisdiction over the 12 nautical miles off their coastlines, and 200 nautical miles are reserved for specific states to utilize the oceanic materials, living and nonliving, in their zone. This can include fishing, the mining of minerals but also includes the obligation to protect the ocean and its biodiversity.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Seas set down the rules and regulations for nations and their use of the oceans in partnership with each other and in their exclusive rights. As mentioned above a nation has the right to use the resources of the ocean up to 200 nautical miles, but outside of this zone is considered international waters and the innocent passage of ships hailing from other nations is guaranteed.

The types of specific oceanic ownership (of sorts) fall into the following categories as defined by the United Nations: jurisdictional provisions, territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone or EEZ, and the high seas or international water.

Map of maritime zones. Image: historicair, CC BY-SA 3.0, MediaWiki Commons.
Map of maritime zones. Image: historicair, CC BY-SA 3.0, MediaWiki Commons.

Jurisdictional provision refers to a particular nation’s obligation to care for the ocean, its resources, and its use as a mode of transportation within certain reaches of its coastal shores. Jurisdictional provisions allow a nation to put their rules and regulations regarding the uses of that specific portion of the ocean.

Territorial sea is defined by the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas as 12 nautical miles, or 22 kilometers, away from a coastal baseline point. The nation in question can regulate use of this space for transportation, resources, use, and determine whether or not the practice of innocent passage is beneficial or detrimental to their own security.

The contiguous zone is considered to be 12 kilometers beyond the territorial sea and is used to enforce a nation’s laws regarding customs and immigration, pollution, and for taxation purposes. If anyone has broken the laws of the host nation in this zone regarding in any of the four previously stated areas, the host nation has jurisdiction over that zone and situation.

The EEZ, or exclusive economic zone, is 200 nautical miles from a host nation’s coastline that allows them access to all natural resources within that zone. The EEZ encompasses the territorial sea of a nation and often is based upon a continental shelf. This zone allows for the exploitation of resources (such as underwater oil mining, fishing, submarine activity, etc.) but also for the passage of foreign nations both by sea and air, privy to the regulations of the host country.

Finally, the high seas or international waters refer to anything outside of the 200 nautical mile radius of any sovereign nation. In these areas ships or aircraft are under the rules and regulations of the nation whose flag they are flying; however, if any laws are broken, such as piracy, any nation may exercise universal jurisdiction and prosecute the offending vessel.

All in all the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas set forth a body of policies regarding the use of the seas. Not only has this convention helped keep the peace regarding the oceans and their use, but has also helped clear up hotly contested zones of resource-rich areas to prevent further manipulation of the waters.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Seas, most importantly, is helping to regulate and mitigate the pollution and environmental damage caused by every nation on Earth through studies, reports, and other methods of environmental activism.


Wikipedia. Ocean Privatization. 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ocean_privatization

The Progress Report. United Nations Moves to Oversee World’s Oceans. http://www.uni-muenster.de/PeaCon/global-texte/whoowns/WhoOwnstheWorldsOceans.htm

Wikipedia. Territorial Waters. 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Territorial_waters


Enter your email to receive the Geography Realm newsletter:

LANDCARPET: Turning Satellite Imagery into Carpets

How Geography Influences Animal Evolution: The Story of a Caribbean Lizard