Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Continental Shelf Definition:

Subsoil and sea bed beneath the high seas but contiguous to the coast and which extends as a natural prolongation of the land into and under the sea.

Related Terms: High Seas, Tidal Waters, Territorial Sea

The concept of sovereignty over a continental shelf is a relatively new development in maritime law and international law. In Refererence re the Seabed, the Supreme Court of Canada used these words:

"International law was forced to take note of the continental shelf when, in the middle of the century, the technology was developed to exploit offshore resources. A consensus developed that the exploitation should be under the control of the coastal State. The 1958 Geneva Convention was drafted so as to do no more than was necessary to achieve this result. Thus the Convention does not grant sovereignty over the continental shelf but rather sovereign rights to explore and exploit. These limited rights co-exist with the rights of other nations to make use of the seabed for submarine cables and pipelines and do not affect the status of the superjacent waters and airspace. They stand in marked contrast to the full sovereignty (saving only other nations’ right of innocent passage) which International Law accords to coastal States over their territorial sea."

On September 28, 1945, United States of America issued this proclamation:

"Having concern for the urgency of conserving and prudently utilizing its natural resources, the Government of the United States regards the natural resources of the subsoil and sea bed of the continental shelf beneath the high seas but contiguous to the coasts of the United States, subject to its jurisdiction and control. In cases where the continental shelf extends to the shores of another state, or is shared with an adjacent state, the boundary shall be determined by the United States and the state concerned in accordance with equitable principles. The character as high seas of the waters above the continental shelf and the right to their free and unimpeded navigation are in no way thus affected."

In the 1969 North Sea Continental Shelf Cases, the International Court of Justice wrote:

"[T]he right of the coastal State to its continental shelf areas is based on the sovereignty of the land domain of which the shelf area is the natural prolongation into and under the sea."

Article 2 of the 1958 Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf, signed in 1958, in force in 1964 upon receiving the requisite number of ratifications, reads as follows, at §2:

"The coastal State exercises over the continental shelf sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring it and exploiting its natural resources. (These) rights ... are exclusive in the sense that if the coastal State does not explore the continental shelf or exploit its natural resources, no one may undertake these activities, or make a claim to the continental shelf, without the express consent of the coastal State.

"The rights of the coastal State over the continental shelf do not depend on occupation, effective or notional, or on any express proclamation.

"The natural resources referred to in these articles consist of the mineral and other non-living resources of the sea-bed and subsoil together with living organisms belonging to sedentary species, that is to say, organisms which, at the harvestable stage, either are immobile on or under the sea-bed or are unable to move except in constant physical contact with the sea-bed or the subsoil."

The United Nations adopts and promotes this definition of continental shelf, at §76 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS): continental shelf

"The continental shelf of a coastal state comprises the sea-bed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to a distance of 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured where the outer edge of the continental shelf does not extend up to that distance....

"The continental margin comprises the submerged prolongation of the land mass of the coastal State, and consists of the sea-bed and subsoil of the shelf of the slope and the rise. It does not include the deep ocean floor with its oceanic ridges or the subsoil thereof."

In Canada, in similar style to most states, the Oceans Act defines continental shelf as follows, at §17(1):

"The continental shelf of Canada is the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas, including those of the exclusive economic zone of Canada, that extend beyond the territorial sea of Canada throughout the natural prolongation of the land territory of Canada .... to the outer edge of the continental margin, determined in the manner under international law that results in the maximum extent of the continental shelf of Canada, the outer edge of the continental margin being the submerged prolongation of the land mass of Canada consisting of the seabed and subsoil of the shelf, the slope and the rise, but not including the deep ocean floor with its oceanic ridges or its subsoil."

Again, using Canada as an example, but consistent with the domestic law of many nations, sovereignty is asserted over the continental shelf. From the Oceans Act, §18:

"Canada has sovereign rights over the continental shelf of Canada for the purpose of exploring it and exploiting the mineral and other non-living natural resources of the seabed and subsoil of the continental shelf of Canada, together with living organisms belonging to sedentary species, that is to say, organisms that, at the harvestable stage, either are immobile on or under the seabed of the continental shelf of Canada or are unable to move except in constant physical contact with the seabed or the subsoil of the continental shelf of Canada."

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