In 1982, when the United Nations first defined where a nation’s maritime territory ends and the high seas begin, few people imagined that the land those boundaries were based on could disappear entirely beneath the waves. But now a warming planet and rising seas are forcing a reckoning with that assumption, writes law professor Vincent P. Cogliati-Bantz.
According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), all coastal nations can claim an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) up to 200 miles from their shorelines. (This zone extends to the midpoint between separate nations if their coastlines are closer than 400 miles apart.) Within the 200-mile mark, nations have a right to choose how they use the fishing stocks and other resources the ocean provides—and to prevent other nations from doing so.
The guidance has caused some wacky disputes in the past: for example, whether the Japanese coral atoll of Okinotorishima, which has 100 total square feet of dry land capped by concrete, can be considered an island and thereby grant Japan an exclusive economic zone for hundreds of miles around it. And far offshore, it’s difficult even for the most powerful countries to fully patrol their waters and prevent others from exploiting fish stocks around where their EEZs meet the high seas. But for the most part, determining where the land itself begins has been straightforwardly guided by the principle that “the land dominates the sea,” with the assumption that aside from specific areas prone to change, like river deltas, the land would largely stay put.