The Continental Shelf in Context

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is sometimes called the constitution of the oceans. One of the main things the Convention does is to establish maritime zones and rights and obligations that apply in each zone.

A nautical mile (M) is 1.852 kilometres. Baselines are the lines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured.

Continental Shelf

While all coastal states are entitled to a continental shelf up to 200 nautical miles, whether a coastal state has continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles depends on whether the submarine areas extending beyond its territorial sea are a natural prolongation of its land territory as determined in accordance with article 76.

Coastal states have sovereign rights over the natural resources of the seabed and subsoil of the extended continental shelf, such as hydrocarbons and sedentary species. Coastal states also have jurisdiction over some activities, such as marine scientific research. Coastal states do not have sovereign rights or jurisdiction over the water column beyond 200 nautical miles.

It is important to note that the sovereign rights of a coastal state over the natural resources of the seabed and subsoil of the continental shelf already exist, are exclusive and do not depend on occupation or proclamation. In other words, a coastal state does not have to take any action in order to have these sovereign rights and no other country can take these rights away. The purpose of the article 76 process is to determine with precision where a coastal state may exercise its sovereign rights and jurisdiction and to provide international recognition for the outer limits of the extended continental shelf. As coastal states delineate the outer limits of their shelves, they are also defining the limits of the Area.

Article 82 of the Convention requires coastal states to make payments or contributions in kind in respect of exploitation of nonliving resources on the extended continental shelf. These payments and contributions are to be distributed to states parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, on the basis of equitable sharing criteria and taking into account the interests and needs of developing states, through the International Seabed Authority.

Other maritime zones in brief

Internal waters are all waters landwards of a coastal state’s baselines. A coastal state has sovereignty over these waters.

The territorial sea extends from a coastal state’s baselines to 12 nautical miles and includes airspace. A coastal state has sovereignty over its territorial sea though foreign vessels have a right to innocent passage.

The contiguous zone extends from the outer limit of the territorial sea to 24 nautical miles. A coastal state can exercise control to prevent infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws and regulations within its territory or territorial sea.

The exclusive economic zone extends from the outer limit of the territorial sea to 200 nautical miles. A coastal state has sovereign rights over the natural resources of the water column and the seabed as well as jurisdiction over certain matters like marine scientific research and the protection and preservation of the marine environment. Foreign vessels may exercise their freedom of navigation in the exclusive economic zone.

The high seas are waters beyond the national jurisdiction of any state.

The Area is seabed beyond national jurisdiction, the nonliving resources of which are administered by the International Seabed Authority, a body established by the Convention. All states parties to the Convention are members of the Authority.

Definitions of Canada's maritime zones are found in the Oceans Act.