New Zealand Law Society - Protecting rights to the distant seabed

Protecting rights to the distant seabed

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Coastal nations worldwide are becoming more interested in their legal rights to mineral and other resources on the continental shelves extending beyond their shores.

The Law Foundation has backed a unique international study undertaken by Joanna Mossop, of Victoria University’s Law Faculty. It explores the legal issues around seabed resources on the extended continental shelf and has resulted in the recent publication of her book, The Continental Shelf Beyond 200 Nautical Miles: Rights and Responsibilities (Oxford University Press).

She explains that all coastal states have sovereign rights to resources within their 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs). But under international law, these rights cover the full continental shelf – the slope extending from the coast to the ocean floor – which, in many cases, extends beyond EEZs.

Protecting resource rights

Countries are just starting to think about protecting their rights to resources such as oil on their extended continental shelves.

“Canada is the furthest ahead because they have a relatively shallow shelf, so their resources are more easily accessible,” says Ms Mossop.

“A treaty between the US and Mexico allows for exploration to take place in the Gulf of Mexico. New Zealand has issued a petroleum prospecting permit in its extended continental shelf, in the New Caledonia basin.”

Other countries, such as Portugal, with a rich maritime tradition, have taken steps to protect the area beyond their EEZ by creating marine protected areas. “They see the extended continental shelf as an important part of their sovereignty. They wanted to solidify their claim, and they saw protection of biodiversity as a way to achieve that,” she says.

Ms Mossop visited several states in researching the book, finding that relatively little consideration of the legal issues has been done. The challenge for her book was trying to imagine what those issues would be.

“One area is the intersection between trawling beyond the 200 nautical mile limit and the protection of the marine environment. More could be done to consider the impact of bottom trawling on the shelf. Fishing on the high seas is unrestricted, but New Zealand does have rights under international law to protect species living on its extended continental shelf.”

NZ one of first

She says that in 2008, New Zealand was one of the first states to receive recommendations allowing it to finalise its extended continental shelf, covering a massive 1.7 million square kilometres.

“The government spent millions gathering the evidence, so it was obviously very conscious of the benefits. The Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act 2012 provides for regulation over the extended continental shelf, although there hasn’t been a lot of focus on what it means for us beyond private exploration,” Ms Mossop says.

The book is understood to be the first book written in English on the subject (there is one in French), and follows a decade of research.

“I’m one of the few writing in this area. There will be more academic focus as states turn their attention to the issues,” she says.

For information on this project and other NZ Law Foundation grants, visit or ‘like’ the NZ Law Foundation’s Facebook page for regular updates on current research.

Lynda Hagen is Executive Director of the New Zealand Law Foundation.

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