The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides that all coastal states have a continental shelf extending 200 nautical miles from coastal baselines or beyond 200 nautical miles if the shelf is a natural prolongation of its land territory. The Convention also recognizes that coastal states have sovereign rights over the natural resources of the seabed and subsoil of the continental shelf as well as jurisdiction over certain activities like marine scientific research. The continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles is colloquially known as the “extended or outer continental shelf”. An estimated 85 countries, including Canada, are thought to have an extended continental shelf.
Article 76 of the Convention sets out a process for states to determine the limits of this “extended” continental shelf and gain international recognition for those limits. This process involves making a submission to an expert body established by the Convention called the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. The process is part of a compromise reached when states negotiated the Convention. It balances recognition of the inherent rights of a coastal state over its continental shelf with the interest of the international community in defining the limits of seabed beyond national jurisdiction, where the mineral resources are the common heritage of mankind and are administered through the International Seabed Authority.
Canada is working to define the outer limits of its continental shelf in both the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans and is collaborating with neighbouring states in the scientific, technical and legal work needed to do so.