Tilio: "Who owns the sea?"

To no one! The sea cannot be appropriated. No one can claim ownership... not even the coastal state, i.e. the state bordering the sea. The seas are part of what we call the "commons"; they are for the use of all, and no one can appropriate them.

Nelly Sudres, University of Montpellier

AdobeStock_181226528 ©zozulinskyi - stock.adobe.com

On the other hand, the soil and subsoil of the "territorial sea" belong to the State, to its "public domain", as they constitute the natural extension of the national territory, its submerged extension. This maritime public domain extends, on the land side, to the sea shore. It therefore includes beaches. It is therefore a misnomer that some beach restaurants and straw huts call themselves "private beaches". These beaches are not the property of the restaurateurs, but of the State, which only authorizes them to occupy part of them. On the seaward side, state ownership of the seabed extends to the limit of the "territorial sea", i.e. 22 kilometers off the coast, or 12 nautical miles according to the unit of measurement for maritime distances. Thus, the operator of a wind farm in the "territorial sea" must obtain authorization from the State to moor the turbines to the seabed.

In short, while the body of water of the sea cannot be the property of anyone, the seabed is the property of the coastal state within the limits of the "territorial sea" and not beyond.

But property rights are not the only way to "control" the sea. In view of the economic, security and communication issues at stake, states have long wished to extend their territorial jurisdiction over the sea, and have had to agree among themselves on this point.

Thus, at international level, conventions aim to define the jurisdiction exercised by coastal states over maritime zones and the rights recognized to third parties. The intensity of the authority exercised by the coastal state over maritime zones depends on the proximity of the zone to its coastline.

Thus, in the waters of the "territorial sea", the closest maritime space, the State exercises its sovereignty in the same way as it does on its land territory i.e. it has exclusive jurisdiction in matters such as fishing, policing or customs. For example, in the context of the "Brexit", French fishing vessels wishing to fish in British waters must obtain fishing licenses granted by the United Kingdom.

Further out, in its "exclusive economic zone", which extends up to 200 nautical miles (370 km) from the coast, the state can regulate the exploration and exploitation of natural resources, but must respect the freedom of navigation for all vessels.

Finally, beyond this zone, the "High Seas" constitute an area of freedom not under the authority of any state. Its seabed, known as "the Zone", is part of the "common heritage of mankind".

Aware of the importance of the oceans to climate change, governments are negotiating to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in the "High Seas", which cover almost half the earth's surface. At the end of August 2022, at the end of the fifth session of international negotiations to conclude a treaty on the protection of the "High Seas", states were unable to reach agreement on the question of marine protected areas or the obligation to carry out environmental impact assessments prior to new activities to exploit the Zone's resources.


Diane Rottner, CC BY-NC-ND

If you too have a question, ask your parents to send an e-mail to: rf.no1709247124itasr1709247124evnoc1709247124eht@r1709247124oinuj1709247124ct1709247124. We'll find a scientist to answer you.

Nelly Sudres, Senior Lecturer in Public Law, University of Montpellier

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.