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Law of Sea: Navigating International Waters

Law of the Sea is a body of international law that concerns the principles and rules by which public entities, especially states, interact in maritime matters, including navigational rights, sea mineral rights, and coastal waters jurisdiction. The Law of the Sea sets down a series of rules that regulate the entitlement of coastal states to maritime zones, their rights and duties within these zones, and how the boundaries of each zone should be established.

Law of the Sea is a branch of international law concerned with public order at sea. Much of this law is codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, signed Dec. 10, 1982. The convention, described as a "constitution for the oceans," represents an attempt to codify international law regarding territorial waters, sea lanes, and ocean resources.

General overview and importance of sea

We can make a long list of how the sea (ocean) and marine life are important to us. Did you know the Oceans cover greater than 70% of the earth's surface? They contain 99% of the living space on Earth! Without this space for organisms to survive, there would be five fewer phyla of animals on the earth. Perhaps this is the most important reason to protect the sea. The seas have historically performed two important functions: first, as a medium of communication, and secondly as a vast reservoir of resources, both living and non-living.

Both of these functions have stimulated the development of legal rules. The fundamental principle governing the law of the sea is that 'the land dominates the sea' so that the land territorial situation constitutes the starting point for the determination of the maritime rights of a coastal state.


Coral reefs, salt marshes, estuaries, and mangrove and seagrass beds are just a few of the ocean environments which support a large number of different species of organisms � that is, have a high biodiversity. Estuaries are brackish water systems that empty their waters into the world's oceans and support many, many fish and other organisms. Along with coral reefs, estuaries sustain 75 percent of all commercial fish and shellfish during some point in their life cycles!

Spawning organisms make reefs and estuaries their home because animals can find an abundance of food and excellent protection from predators. In the estuary, the seagrasses protect juveniles and food for the herbivore. Mangroves not only act as nurseries for commercially important marine species, but they also act as a filtering system for coastal water.

Natural Resources

The ocean floor habitat is not as well-known as coral reefs or coastal areas, but it is very important to all the organisms that live on the bottom (benthic organisms), as well as commercially important as well. The continental shelves and ocean floor are home to many important minerals, including oil and natural gas. Natural gas and oil play a major role in meeting world energy needs. The outer continental shelf contains more than 50 percent of the world's remaining undiscovered natural gas and oil resources.


Not only are oceans important to sustain life, but also for moving materials that we use. More than 90 percent world's trade (by weight) passes through ports and harbours. Without commercial ships and barges, transportation of goods from place to place would be much more difficult and expensive. Cities that have good natural harbors have always had an advantage, and even today are some of the largest cities in the world.

Climate and Weather

Did you know warm ocean waters provide the energy to fuel storm systems that provide fresh water vital to land-dwelling organisms? The oceans interact with and affect global weather and climate. As the air passes over warm waters, it rises due to warming. As it cools, condensation of the water creates rainfall. If the air passes over cooler waters, it cools and sinks.

Common Terms on the Law of Sea:

  • The maritime zones:
    • Territorial sea
    • Contiguous zone
    • Exclusive economic zone
    • Continental shelf
    • High seas
    • Area
Maritime zones are drawn using what the LOSC calls "baselines." Unlike inland waters, coastal waters rise and fall in tides. Rather than having moving maritime boundaries, the baseline is fixed to begin at the low-water line along the coast. These zones are measured using nautical miles, a measurement based on the circumference of the Earth. One nautical mile equals roughly 1.15 miles on land. Baseline: is a legal construct: an artificial boundary line that determines where a State's maritime sovereignty and jurisdiction begins and ends. Baselines determine all areas of maritime jurisdiction.

Maritime Zones and How They Are Determined

Internal Waters
Internal waters are all the waters that fall landward of the baseline, such as lakes, rivers, and tidewaters. States have the same sovereign jurisdiction over internal waters as they do over another territory. There is no right to innocent passage through internal waters.

Territorial Sea
Everything from the baseline to a limit not exceeding twelve miles is considered the State's territorial sea. Territorial seas are the most straightforward zone. Much like internal waters, coastal States have sovereignty and jurisdiction over the territorial sea. These rights extend not only on the surface but also to the seabed and subsoil, as well as vertically to airspace. The vast majority of States have established territorial seas at the 12 nautical mile limit, but a handful have established shorter thresholds.

While territorial seas are subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the coastal States, the coastal States' rights are limited by the passage rights of other States, including innocent passage through the territorial sea and transit passage through international straits. This is the primary distinction between internal waters and territorial seas. These rights are described in detail in Chapter Three: Freedom of Navigation. There is no right of innocent passage for aircraft flying through the airspace above the coastal state's territorial sea.

Contiguous Zone
States may also establish a contiguous zone from the outer edge of the territorial seas to a maximum of 24 nautical miles from the baseline. This zone exists to bolster a State's law enforcement capacity and prevent criminals from fleeing the territorial sea. Within the contiguous zone, a State has the right to both prevent and punish infringement of fiscal, immigration, sanitary, and customs laws within its territory and territorial sea. Unlike the territorial sea, the contiguous zone only gives jurisdiction to a State on the ocean's surface and floor.It does not provide air and space rights.

Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)
Unlike other zones whose existence derived from earlier international law, the EEZ was a creation of the LOSC. States may claim an EEZ that extends 200 nautical miles from the baseline. In this zone, a coastal State has the exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resources found within the water, on the sea floor, or under the sea floor's subsoil.

These resources encompass both living resources, such as fish, and non-living resources, such as oil and natural gas. States also have exclusive rights to engage in offshore energy generation from the waves, currents, and wind within their EEZ. Article 56 also allows States to establish and use artificial islands, installations and structures, conduct marine scientific research, and protect and preserve the marine environment through Marine Protected Areas.

Continental Shelf
The continental shelf is a natural seaward extension of a land boundary. This seaward extension is geologically formed as the seabed slopes away from the coast, typically consisting of a gradual slope (the continental shelf proper), followed by a steep slope (the continental slope), and then a more gradual slope leading to the deep seabed floor. These three areas, collectively known as the continental margin, are rich in natural resources, including oil, natural gas, and certain minerals. The LOSC allows a State to conduct economic activities for a distance of 200 nautical miles from the baseline, or the continental margin where it extends beyond 200 nautical miles.

High Seas and Deep Ocean Floor
The ocean surface and the water column beyond the EEZ are referred to as the high seas in the LOSC. Seabed beyond a coastal State's EEZs and Continental Shelf claims is known under the LOSC as the Area. The LOSC states that the Area is considered "the common heritage of all mankind" and is beyond any national jurisdiction. States can conduct activities in the Area so long as they are for peaceful purposes, such as transit, marine science, and undersea exploration. Resources are a more complicated matter.

Living resources, such as fish, are available for exploitation by any vessel from any State. Although the LOSC does not impose any limitations on fishing in the high seas, it encourages regional cooperation to conserve those resources and ensure their sustainability for future generations. The U.S. is a party to separate conventions and regional fisheries management organizations that govern international fishing activity.

Non-living resources from the Area, which the LOSC refers to as minerals, are handled differently from fish since mineral extraction projects are capital-intensive to build and administer. To maintain such projects without national control, LOSC created the International Seabed Authority, referred to as the Authority in the LOSC document. This international body, headquartered in Jamaica, is responsible for administering these resource projects through a business unit called the Enterprise.

The Enterprise was organized to be governed much like a public-traded corporation with a Council (functioning as an Executive Committee) and a Secretariat (which handles day-to-day administration). As an international body, the Authority also includes an Assembly of representatives from each nation which functions like a large Board of Directors. Unlike a publicly traded corporation, the Assembly is the supreme body for setting policy in the Authority. Since the ratification of the LOSC, there has been limited activity about these provisions.

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) creates a comprehensive command to govern the rights of nations in respect of the world's oceans. International Maritime Organization (IMO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for improving maritime safety and preventing pollution from ships. Life itself arose from the oceans. Even now, when the continents have been mapped and their interiors made accessible by road, river, and air, most of the people in the world live no more than 200 miles from the sea and relate closely to it.

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