As long as no one used the World Ocean for anything but an inexpensive highway and a barrier against enemies, there was little interest in owning part of it. Freedom of the seas was an easy doctrine to preach and to maintain. But now that nations are convinced that the water world contains “inexhaustible” resources, they are gradually encroaching upon this freedom. A struggle for ownership of the ocean is arising, and a new law of the sea is gradually taking form.
Ecuador has charged American tuna men exorbitant fees for fishing within 200 miles of her coast and in 1963 seized, held, and fined two American crews. Japanese fishermen have violated our territorial seas so consistently that Alaska’s Governor William Egan, in 1962, ordered National Guardsmen to board and arrest the crews of two of their boats. Large, modern Soviet fleets fishing off both U. S. coasts have been called, in Congressional reports, “a peril to the U. S. fishing industry and a threat to the available supply of fish.” In March 1963, Brazil and France almost went to war over who owned the lobsters walking on the sea bed 60 miles off the Brazilian coast. A fishing dispute between Iceland and Great Britain has been smoldering since 1958.
One of the prizes at stake in this struggle— food—could relieve the cruel grip hunger holds on over half the world’s population. Many of the 500 million people who are protein-starved live in nations fronting on the Indian Ocean, which teems with protein in a variety of delicious forms. The present world fish catch of 88 billion pounds a year could be increased at least five-fold, and maintained indefinitely at that level, without danger of depleting the stock. (Yet, many of the presently popular seafoods are showing the effects of overfishing.)
Another prize is the mineral wealth of the oceans. Diamonds are being dredged off South Africa and tin off Indonesia. Japan mines iron from its coastal waters, and coal is taken from tunnels extending under the sea from the coasts of Canada and England. Oil and gas are produced from offshore fields in the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Gulf of Suez, off the shores of California, Venezuela, Mexico, Japan, and Peru. Exploration and drilling are going on in numerous other locations. Sulphur is being recovered from beneath the Gulf of Mexico. Sea water itself is a highly-dilute ore that contains dissolved minerals in astronomical quantities; and magnesium, bromine, iodine, and salt are now being profitably extracted from it. Preliminary exploration indicates that the floor of the deep ocean is strewn with manganese, copper, cobalt, and nickel in amounts that could meet man’s needs for a million years at the present rate of consumption.
As 158,800 people are added to the world population every 24 hours and land resources are reduced or exhausted, the pressure to utilize these resources becomes greater and greater. But to exploit and conserve the sea’s wealth efficiently, international agreements must be reached and enforced. In addition, vastly more knowledge must be obtained and effective engineering and management techniques developed. While some are taking food from the sea, others are using it as a dumping ground for sewage, pesticides, and radioactive wastes. This adds to the urgency for a new international law of the sea.
Discovery and recovery of oil in the Gulf of Mexico by the United States precipitated the first Act to appropriate resources beyond territorial boundaries. Production of oil off Louisiana began in 1938, and subsequently it was estimated that submerged lands off Louisiana, Texas, and California contain the largest undeveloped source of oil under U. S. control—14 billion barrels. To protect these resources against appropriation by foreign countries and to insure orderly exploitation, President Harry S. Truman issued the historical “Proclamation of 28 September 1945.” Called by some “one of the most decisive Acts in history,” this proclamation laid claim to the “natural resources of the subsoil and sea bed of the continental shelf.”
By this Proclamation, the United States gained rights to an undersea area three times the size of France (760,000 square miles). This acquisition should not be confused with decisions involving the Government and the States of California, Louisiana, and Texas. In a legal battle for oil and gas rights, these States laid claim to submerged lands from the low water mark to the three- mile limit. But the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Federal Government in three separate cases, stating that it has “paramount rights in and full domain and power over the belt as a function of national external sovereignty, and that these rights . . . extend to the outer edge of the continental shelf.”
The proclamation of 28 September 1945 was designed to initiate a change in international law by establishing a precedent which other nations could follow, but instead it unleashed a wave of extravagant claims and protests that international law had been violated. In 1950, the tiny Central American republic of El Salvador declared sovereignty over the sea, subsoil, and air space for a distance of 200 miles from its shores. At least five nations framed their claims to include the sea above the shelf, although the U. S. proclamation specifically stated: “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 affected.” This prompted two U. S. university professors to publish an article proposing that “we should extend our claim outward to the centers of the oceans.”
In 1952, Ecuador, Chile, and Peru claimed exclusive fishing rights for 200 miles off their coasts, irrespective of the width of their narrow shelves. Ecuador enforced its claim to the tune of $500,000 paid in fines by American tuna boat skippers in 1962 for fishing in the 66,000 square miles of Pacific Ocean claimed by that country. Fed up with paying up to $8,000 for a one-shot license to drop nets in these waters, 21 U. S. tuna boats penetrated the 200-mile limit in June 1963 and began fishing without licenses.
According to the fishermen, a patrol craft approached two of the boats 14 miles out and ordered them into port to pay the fee. They refused, and the 19 other tuna boats surrounded the patrol craft. The Ecuadoreans sent out an emergency call for a destroyer, shots were fired, and the two American skippers then agreed to go along under force of arms. Ecuador asserted that the boats were within the three-mile limit and stuck to this story. Despite a call from Secretary of State Dean Rusk in their behalf, the crews were kept imprisoned on their vessels for three weeks and fined $12,086 and $14,186.1
Senator Ernest Gruening of Alaska called the incident an “unmitigated outrage.” Ecuador receives about $152,000,000 a year in U. S. aid, so Gruening and his Senate colleagues passed an amendment to the foreign aid bill in November 1963, limiting assistance to foreign countries imposing “any penalty or sanction on U. S. vessels.” The amendment also penalizes any country that makes exaggerated claims of fishing rights.
To bring order out of the chaos of claims, an International Conference on the Law of the Sea was convened by the United Nations in Geneva in February, 1958. Attended by representatives of 86 nations, the Conference upheld the U. S. position that a coastal nation has exclusive rights to natural resources on and under its continental shelf. This Geneva convention also states that these rights do not extend to the overlying water and air, and it recognizes the four freedoms of the sea—freedom of navigation, freedom of fishing, freedom to lay submarine pipelines and cables, and freedom to fly over the high seas. The International Convention on the Continental Shelf came into force on 10 June 1964, when the United Kingdom became the 22nd nation to ratify it. British action was undoubtedly prompted by the fact that ratification gives Great Britain possession of the western half of the North Sea floor with its potential of rich gas and oil deposits.
Ratification means the convention’s terms are now acknowledged international law, and it marks the first world-wide accord on the ownership of marine resources. The terms, however, are not so specific that serious problems in interpretation and implementation cannot arise. In March 1963, Brazilian warships chased six French boats fishing for lobsters 60 miles off their coast. Brazil pointed out that the 1958 Geneva convention included not only minerals and other non-living resources, but also “living organisms . . . which . . . are unable to move except in constant physical contact with the sea bed or the subsoil.” Lobsters, langousles, or crayfish, by whatever name they are called, do not swim but walk along the bottom; therefore Brazil considers them part of the resources of the shelf.
France disagreed in the form of the 2,750-ton destroyer Tartu, which was dispatched to protect the French fishermen. There were also rumors of a French armada heading toward Brazil from West Africa. “De Gaulle’s force de frappe Thermidor,” sneered a Brazilian official, and a newspaper headline announced “BRAZIL WILL MEET THE FRENCH ATTACK WITH SHELLS.”
When it looked as though a naval battle was imminent, the Journal do Brasil suggested: “Since both Brazilian and French gourmets delight in lobster, let us solve this crisis at the dinner table.” The French must have thought this was reasonable because they recalled whatever ships were en route. Back in Paris, Premier Georges Pompidou wrote the equivalent of the congressman from the fishermen’s district: “Brazil has no atomic bombs. We have very few of them. We are not going to declare war.”
The most important issues left unresolved by the 1958 Geneva Conference were the width of the territorial sea and the extent of fishing rights. Twenty-one nations, including the United States, claimed a three-mile limit; 17 nations claimed four to six miles; 11 nations, including Russia, claimed 12 miles; five nations went for 200 miles, and nine claimed the sea above the continental shelf. When it became apparent that none of these claims could muster support from a two-thirds majority, the United States offered a compromise proposal for a six-mile territorial sea with an additional six-mile restricted fishing zone. But after extensive and sometimes heated debate, neither this nor any other proposal received the required majority, and the 1958 Conference adjourned without taking any further action.
A Second Conference on the Law of the Sea convened in Geneva in March 1960, with the agenda limited to these two questions. During the period between the two conferences, representatives from the U. S. Navy and the Department of State visited countries all over the world to gain support for the six-plus-six compromise. Firmly convinced that six-miles was the outer limit consistent with security, freedom of the seas, and limitations of patrol and maintenance of navigational aids, the United States used this compromise as a takeoff point at the 1960 meeting.
After six weeks of debates, the claimants boiled down to six-milers vs.12-milers. The former, led by the United States and Canada, proposed a six-mile territorial sea with fishing restricted in the contiguous six miles. Whereas certain nations who had traditionally fished in the outer zone would have enjoyed perpetual rights under the first U. S. six-plus-six plan, the new combined proposal limited historic rights to a definite period of time. The 12-milers, an 18-nation bloc including the Soviet Union, proposed each state could establish its own territorial sea within a three to 12- mile belt. Any country choosing less than 12 miles would be allowed exclusive fishing rights in the contiguous waters out to the 12- mile limit.
When the final vote was taken on 26 April 1960, the six-milers fell one vote short of the required two-thirds majority of the 86 voting nations. Thus, for the third time since 1930, an international conference on the law of the sea failed to agree on regulation of living resources in the sea and how much ocean next to its coast a maritime country can control consistent with the rights of other nations.
Upon failure of the Second Geneva Conference, the United States returned to the three- mile limit, stating that this is the only territorial sea sanctioned by use in international law. The United States officially established this limit in 1793 when the “cannon-shot rule,” which dates from around 1700, captured the imagination of jurists and politicians. According to this rule, the distance to which a cannon shot could be fired from shore was the distance to which a nation could enforce any territorial claims. At the time, the absolute limit that a shore battery might reasonably expect to hit anything with an iron cannon ball was a marine league or three nautical miles (5,556 meters).
Many observers hold the view that ballistics technology has outmoded the three-mile limit. Senator Gruening feels it was “a development of a national defense measure” which today penalizes the fishing industry. He and Senator Edward Muskie of Maine have co-sponsored a bill to extend territorial limits to 12 miles for fishing purposes only. The federal government’s position is that the origin and antiquity of the three-mile limit is not the question, that any territorial sea is an encroachment upon the freedom of the seas, and that a three-mile limit is most consistent with the rights of other nations.
Gruening says this is all very well in principle, but in practice it is “an albatross hung around every fisherman’s neck.” He represents a group that feels the three-mile limit further sickens an already sick fishing industry by allowing the large modern fishing fleets of Russia, Japan, and other nations to come too close to our shores, deplete the stock, and in some cases sell it back to the United States. A Senate Commerce Committee report accuses Soviet fishermen of strong-arm tactics such as hit-and-run collisions, crowding out our fishermen with trawler flotillas of 150 to 200 vessels, destroying pots and lines, using illegal gear and ignoring conservation agreements. Gruening states: “Soviet vessels have repeatedly, under cover of morning fog, penetrated inside our three-mile limit.” Reports from Alaska claim that for two successive seasons Russian trawlers have torn up king crab traps just outside the three-mile limit. Governos Egan has written the President saying “the Russians are driving American fishermen from their traditional fishing grounds and ignoring the fundamental requirements of king crab conservation.”
Japanese fishermen, too, have repeatedly penetrated our territorial seas and violated conservation practices. In the summer of 1962, Governor Egan protested to the Department of State the presence of Japanese fishing vessels in territorial waters between Kodiak Island and the Alaska mainland. When no action was taken, Governor Egan sent the National Guard on board two of the vessels, had the crews arrested, and ordered them brought to court. His action was heartily approved by Alaska’s congressional delegation and won the unanimous and enthusiastic support of the people of the State. The Department of State, however, was not so pleased and, at their request, the Japanese were released without any penalty whatsoever.
Subsequent to this incident, President J. F. Kennedy signed Senate Bill 1988, imposing fines up to $10,000 and imprisonment up to one year for violation of our territorial waters. The bill, which became Public Law 88-3082, also prohibits the taking of any U. S. fishery resource on the continental shelf regardless of the width of the territorial sea. In addition to this law, the one to create a 12-mile fishing zone, and the amendment to the foreign aid bill, there is legislation pending to give the President power to raise tariffs against uncooperative nations and to subsidize the fishing industry. All this adds up to an impressive package of laws dealing with marine resources and control of large areas of the high seas.
Meanwhile, Mexico has claimed the right to exclude U. S. shrimp boats from traditional fishing grounds within nine miles of her shores. Turkey has extended her fishing boundaries from six to 12 miles, and Colombia is considering making claims out to 200 miles from her coast. In August 1964, Canada began a by-stages move to extend its fisheries’ limit from three to 12 miles. This will deprive some American fishermen of long-frequented grounds unless State Department negotiations now in progress are successful.
A 16-nation European Fisheries Conference met in London in February 1964 to settle fishing disputes in the North Eastern Atlantic and to discuss ways to push back increasing numbers of Russian and Polish fishing vessels. One of the main disputes was the Fish War between Great Britain and Iceland, smoldering since 1958. In September of that year, Iceland banned fishing by other nations within 12 miles of her coast. Great Britain, whose trawlers had been working these waters for about 70 years, protested this as unlawful interference with ships on the high seas. She announced that her fishermen would continue to fish in the disputed zone and would be protected by the Royal Navy while so doing. For more than 18 months British trawlers fished in groups within short distance of both Icelandic gunboats and British warships. Remarkably, neither side lost its temper, good sense, or judgment; and not a single person was hurt during the entire “war.”
Both British trawlers and warships withdrew to clear the air for the 1960 Geneva Conference. After the Conference, the trawlers kept outside the 12-mile limit until an agreement was reached in March 1961. The terms: Iceland received her 12-mile limit, but Great Britain retained the right to fish at certain times and locations within six miles of her coast for three years. When this agreement expired, Britain hoped to keep fishing these waters by getting the nations participating in the European Fisheries Conference to agree to a six-plus-six pact. Iceland refused to join the convention, but Great Britain and 12 other nations agreed to extend their fisheries’ jurisdiction out to 12 miles. The first six miles are reserved for each nation’s own fishermen, while the outer six are restricted to countries who have traditionally fished these grounds.
This is the first general international agreement revising the three-mile limit, and it substantially strengthens the position of the 12-mile limit in international law. Such multilateral pacts for specific purposes are the beginning of a new law of the sea—a law that must soon take form if nations are to efficiently exploit and effectively conserve the ocean’s resources.
Dr. Columbus O’D. Iselin of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Harvard University predicts: “Inevitably it will be practical to set up the equivalent of fences in the sea so as to regulate the goings and comings of fish. It will be possible to remove the ‘weed’ forms and to encourage the production of desirable food fish.” All present marine mining is in waters less than 400 feet deep. But with increased knowledge, efficient methods and equipment and, perhaps, government money, ocean miners will go farther and deeper. (By the end of this decade, the Bureau of Mines expects to have underwater mining demonstration laboratories, and floating submerged laboratories for research, on-the-spot analyses and testing.) “But,” Iselin warns, “nothing will happen in such directions on a large scale until it is decided who will have the right to reap the harvest.”
At present, the legal, political, and economic problems of seriously exploiting the wealth of the sea are much further from solution than the remaining scientific ones. Many farsighted scientists, jurists, and statesmen are urging that the time to start laying down the ground rules within which ocean resources can be developed is now.
Dr. Wilbert Chapman, of the Van Camp Foundation, and others have suggested that the United Nations is the logical agency to do this. Reporting on the topic of marine resources to the Scientific Committee on Oceanographic Research, (SCOR) Van Camp called for the U. N. to establish a World Oceanographic Organization similar to its World Meteorological Organization.
The State of Washington’s ocean-minded Senator Warren G. Magnuson plans to organize a world fisheries group that would have the power to resolve international conflicts on the high seas, and to develop, maintain, and conserve its living resources so that they will provide the greatest possible benefit to mankind. Part of these plans is a Senate Joint Resolution (SJ-112) directing that an extensive study be made of all commercial fisheries in waters contiguous to the United States.
In addition, Representative Richard T. Hanna of California, on 12 May 1964, introduced a “measure providing a modest sum of money to energize the resources of some of our outstanding legal institutions to provide leadership and guidance to the important field of the law of the oceans.” Two weeks later, Representative Alton Lennon of North Carolina introduced a bill authorizing the appropriation of $50,000 for a study of the legal problems of management, use, and control of the natural resources of the oceans and ocean beds.
In speeches advocating such legislature, Congressmen have indicated concern about open conflict erupting over disputes involving rights to marine resources. A respected international agency—either inside or outside the U. N.—would be a buffer against explosive national tempers and could attempt compromise solutions to such disputes. It could coordinate and sponsor research and development. The agency could also be given power to grant exploration and exploitation leases, and to control and monitor disposal of radioactive waste and other wastes.
Until something like this happens, the World Ocean—71 per cent of the earth’s surface—will remain in a state of lawlessness that one scientist compared to the “Wild West” of a century ago. Unless something is done, the danger of “shoot outs” on the main street of the world will be ever present.
1. See also J. J. Johnson, “The Pacific Coast Tuna Fleet,” U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, June 1964, p. 61.
2. Created by the last Congress, this law gives the President discretionary powers to extend U. S. territorial limits beyond the traditional 3-mile limit.