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Backgrounder - Canada’s continental shelf submission

On December 6, 2013, Canada filed a submission with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf regarding its continental shelf in the Atlantic Ocean. Canada also filed preliminary information concerning the outer limits of its continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean.

Atlantic submission by the numbers 

  • Shelf area: approximately 1.2 million square kilometres
  • Size of submission: approximately 2,500 pages
  • Number of coordinates defining outer limits: 732
  • Seismic data collected: 13,000 kilometres
  • Bathymetric data collected: 18,000 kilometres
  • Budget: $117 million from fiscal year 2004/05 to 2016/17 (for Atlantic and Arctic)

Legal context

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides that all coastal states have a continental shelf extending 200 nautical miles (M) from coastal baselines or beyond 200 M 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 M is known as “the extended 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.

The outer limits of the shelf are defined using the physical attributes of the seabed (depth, composition) as well as distance from shore. These attributes are used to determine a series of coordinates (latitude/longitude) by which the outer limits are defined. Coordinates must be justified by scientific data, notably bathymetric data about the shape of the seabed and seismic data about the composition of the seabed.

Scientific work

Canadian scientists with the Canadian Hydrographic Service (part of Fisheries and Oceans Canada) as well as the Geological Survey of Canada (part of Natural Resources Canada) collected scientific data under challenging conditions. Canada collaborated with its neighbours in the scientific work necessary for the submission, including with Denmark in the Labrador Sea and with the United States off the Scotian shelf. In the Arctic Ocean, Canada collaborated with its neighbours in the scientific work necessary for the submission, including joint surveys with Denmark and the U.S. Scientists also made novel use of Canadian technology, such as autonomous underwater vehicles to collect data.


When Canada became party to the Convention in December 2003, it assumed the obligation to file a submission with the Commission. The main steps of the process set out in the Convention to define the outer limits of the continental shelf are:

  • preparing a submission and filing it with the Commission;
  • engaging with the Commission as it considers the submission;
  • receiving recommendations on the submission from the Commission;
  • taking the necessary domestic steps (e.g. regulations) to incorporate the location of the outer limits in Canadian law; and
  • filing the coordinates of the outer limits with the United Nations

Depending on how long Canada’s submission waits in the queue for the Commission’s consideration, it may take another ten years to complete this process. The Atlantic submission is now in the queue. As indicated in the preliminary information filed with the Commission, Canada intends to file a submission for the Arctic at an appropriate date, which may depend, among other things, on the acquisition of additional data. Finally, additional time may be needed to delimit boundaries with neighbouring states.

Canadian Team

A team of scientists, technical personnel and lawyers from Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada (DFATD), Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) have prepared Canada’s submission. NRCan and DFO are responsible for collecting data, interpreting it and preparing the submission from a scientific and technical standpoint. They are also responsible for supporting engagement with the Commission as it considers Canada’s submission. DFATD is responsible for the legal aspects of the submission, for undertaking associated diplomatic work and for overall engagement with the Commission.

Other departments and agencies were involved in collecting the data, including Environment Canada (Canadian Ice Service), Parks Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard, Defence Research and Development Canada, and the Department of National Defence.