Governing the North-East Atlantic – Who Does What?

An area as vast as the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR The North East Atlantic) holds interest for many governments, industries, researchers and conservationists. To deal with all these interests many organisations have been formed and agreements been signed. They aim to govern the region, stretching from the North Pole to the Strait of Gibraltar and the Azores in the south, and from the tip of Greenland to the inland sources of rivers discharging into the sea.

Legal Framework

The internationally binding legal framework is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS, 1982, in force since 1994), which specifies the rights, and duties of all users of the sea. This convention establishes a general duty to "to protect and preserve the marine environment" (Art. 192), in particular those which are "rare or fragile ecosystems as well as the habitat of depleted, threatened or endangered species and other forms of marine life" (Art. 194 (5)). The Law of the Sea is not limited to any legal zone, and also includes waters and seafloor in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ).
Among the rights of states, UNCLOS distinguishes several legal zones from the coasts of coastal States out into international waters. These zones are characterised by diminishing national sovereignty and legal responsibility from the coast offshore.
In territorial waters, up to 12 nautical miles (nm) from the baseline, there is full national sovereignty for example with respect to the exploitation of all kinds of resources and other uses of the seabed, subsoil, water column and airspace above. Foreign ships have the right of so-called innocent passage.

In a zone up to 200 nautical miles offshore, the coastal State has sovereignty on the exploitation of the living and non-living natural resources only in and on the seafloor, and in the water column. It also has the right to regulate marine scientific research and to establish artificial structures. However, there is a freedom of navigation, pipeline and cable laying and for lawful uses in conjunction with these freedoms.


Figure 1. The North-East Atlantic in 2009: Large areas are closed to bottom fishing activities by NEAFC (red) and EU/national regulation (green), OSPAR MPAs (proposed: yellow stippled, agreed in principle: yellow line), and extent of potential coastal States´ national jurisdiction on the seafloor as submitted to UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental ShelfFigure 1. The North-East Atlantic in 2009: Large areas are closed to bottom fishing activities by NEAFC (red) and EU/national regulation (green), OSPAR MPAs (proposed: yellow stippled, agreed in principle: yellow line), and extent of potential coastal States´ national jurisdiction on the seafloor as submitted to UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. (click image to enlarge)


Beyond this 200 nautical mile zone, which can be declared as a national exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the coastal State can under certain conditions apply for national jurisdiction over the seafloor for up to an additional 350 nm in prolongation of its EEZ (so-called extended continental shelf). If granted, the coastal State may then recover the mineral resources. A large number of extended continental shelf submissions have been filed until 2009, most of which have not yet been decided upon. Therefore, uncertainty exists concerning the extent of national jurisdiction, but also on the modalities for marine protected areas in those regions.

True areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) are the open ocean waters beyond the coastal States´ 200 nm zones, and the seafloor seawards of the (extended) continental shelf boundaries (called 'the Area'). The mineral resources of 'the Area' are "the common heritage of mankind" and therefore have to be administered to the benefit of all nations (Art. 136, 140). Living resources do not have such an ownership, but their exploitation is one of the high seas freedoms (Art. 87).

In the North-East Atlantic, all coastal States with a seabed contiguous to 'the Area' applied for an extension of their continental shelf (see Fig. 1). Of relevance for the Charlie-Gibbs MPA are in particular the submissions made by Iceland (black line indicating the suggested boundaries) and Portugal (red line). Both submissions reach out to include large areas of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge under national jurisdiction. Nevertheless, the water column remains under an international regime.


Global Management in the North-East Atlantic

The freedom of fishing in the high seas has to date only been limited by multilateral agreements, such as the UN Fish Stocks Agreement (1995), and regional fisheries conventions, enhancing cooperation on taking the necessary measures for the conservation of fish. More responsible fishing is also the goal of the voluntary FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (1991) and the International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing (IUU). The FAO International Guidelines for the Management of Deep-Sea Fisheries in the High Seas (2009) particularly address the vulnerability of open ocean and deep-sea ecosystems to fishing activities and provide a set of rules, including the closure of areas to fishing, to minimize environmental damage.

Contracting Parties to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) cooperate on developing rules and regulations concerning maritime safety, the efficiency of navigation, and the prevention and control of marine pollution from ships and all other sources. The IMO can designate areas where particular regulations apply to protect the marine environment from impacts arising from navigation and marine pollution as Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (PSSAs) and Special Areas (SAs).
The International Seabed Authority (ISA), established in 1994 under UNCLOS, serves to facilitate the cooperation of Contracting Parties on the exploration and exploitation of mineral resources in 'the Area' for the benefit of mankind, while respecting the general duties to preserve and protect the marine environment.

Regional Management in the North-East Atlantic

As one of the few regional seas of the world, the North-East Atlantic has a regional environmental convention, OSPAR (see Factsheet). Fisheries management is carried out by national regulation and by regional fisheries management organisations in the European fisheries zone (European Commission, see Fig. 1) and in international waters (North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, NEAFC). In addition, the conservation and exploitation of Atlantic tuna is managed by the International Commission on the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), salmon by the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO) and the hunting of marine mammals by the North Atlantic Marine Mammals Commission (NAMMCO). The scientific Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas (ASCOBANS), is concerned with the conservation and recovery of for example harbor porpoises. The International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) provides scientific advice to many of these bodies.


< back