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Who Owns the Sea?

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

The United Nations (UN) defines the seas as "the common heritage of humanity". Since 1994, a treaty regulates what is allowed and what is forbidden on, in and under the seas, regardless of whether it concerns shipping or deep-sea mining.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is signed by most of the world's countries and divides the sea into different zones: the twelve nautical mile zone, the 200 nautical mile zone and the high seas.

The first zone, the twelve nautical mile zone, is the so-called territorial sea. National law is binding there. This means that the territorial sea is part of the national territory.

The 200 nautical mile zone borders the coastal waters. It is also known as the "Exclusive Economic Zone". There, the state to which the coast in question belongs has the right to use natural resources in the sea - living beings and mineral resources. He can set catch quotas for the fishery, issue licenses for the search for raw materials and decide on their extraction. The respective state is allowed to keep all income from fishing and the extraction of raw materials.

Everything outside of these limits forms the third zone, the high seas. It does not belong to anyone under international law.

Steward of the high seas

There are always disputes about the areas on the high seas. One example is the manganese nodule fields discovered in the Pacific in the 1970s. Manganese nodules are potato-like structures and, as the name suggests, contain the heavy metal manganese.

But the industry is not concerned with manganese, but with much more valuable metals such as copper, nickel and cobalt, which are also contained in the tubers. On the sea floor, the nodules emerge from the limestone shells of former microorganisms. At around five millimeters in a million years, they grow very slowly.

While the industry regarded the areas as a legally free area after their discovery in international waters, critics demanded a binding regulation for the mining. In addition to environmental damage in the deep sea, they also criticized the competitive advantage of the industrialized nations. How should developing countries finance deep-sea mining and implement it technically?

Today, anyone who wants to mine deep-sea in the open ocean outside of the 200-nautical-mile zone must contact the International Seabed Authority (ISA) in Jamaica with their concerns. It manages the mineral resources of the deep sea as "common heritage of humanity". The authority examines and assesses all projects, which are then either approved or rejected.

German lease area in the Pacific

Germany has leased an area in the Pacific manganese nodule belt since 2006. On this area, twice the size of Bavaria, geologists from the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) are exploring the future mining of manganese nodules. The license only allows exploration and research, not the mining of the tubers.

In addition to Germany, China, India, Japan, Korea, France, Russia and an Eastern European consortium are also licensees. After 15 years, however, the UN will claim 50 percent of the areas and assign them to potential buyers.

In order to really mine manganese nodules, Germany would have to invest a lot of money and apply for a mining license after the research.

Russians at the North Pole

However, disputes over territorial claims are inevitable: in 2007 the Russians hoisted their flag on the seabed of the Arctic Ocean. Researchers suspect enormous amounts of oil and gas to be included. According to the UN, the Arctic is an international area and therefore "common heritage of humanity".

Russia was one of the first states to apply to the United Nations to extend its territory in the Arctic Ocean. The Convention on the Law of the Sea allows the sovereign rights of the "exclusive economic zone" to be extended from 200 nautical miles to 350 off the coast if the continental shelf extends further into the sea.

This means that the respective state - or the applicant - must prove that its mainland continues under water. Incidentally, on a global average, the extension of a continent under water is 74 kilometers.

The battle for the deep sea

But who does the underwater mountain range, which is located directly at the North Pole, belong to? Canada, Norway, the USA, Russia or Denmark?

The fight for the North Pole is open to the five neighboring states: the Russians see the mountains as a direct extension of their continent, the Danes believe in a continuation of Greenland, and for Canada the mountains are an undersea part of their northernmost Ellesmere- Island.

These disputes are being heard by the New York Shelf Limitation Commission. It decides whether the coastal states are allowed to expand the borders on the sea floor. The Russians' request was not granted.

In the end there is still the way to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. The conflict advisor for the sea, based in Hamburg, takes action when something is controversial at sea. So far, however, no case on territorial claims on the high seas has been negotiated there.

The Arctic states are now looking for peaceful solutions in joint conferences. But the dispute over the area on the Arctic Ocean shows the potential for conflict that mineral resources deep below sea level beyond national borders have.