My maternal grandfather, the late Phillip Calder, always admonished his children and grandchildren that “time and tide wait on no man.” On May 13, time, tide and man did not wait on the United States.
May 13 was the deadline for countries to submit new claims to the seabed beyond the normal 200 nautical miles from their shoreline — up to 100 miles from the point at which the sea ran 1.5 miles deep, and no more than 350 miles from land. It’s a scramble for the mineral, oil and pharmaceutical bounty of the seafloor, made possible by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Concluded in 1982 and, to date, ratified by 156 countries and the European Union, the convention defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world’s oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, protection of the environment and management of marine natural resources. It covers navigation, archipelagic status and transit regimes, exclusive economic zones, continental shelf jurisdiction, deep-seabed mining, the exploitation regime, scientific research and settlement of disputes.
Such management of the sea is imperative. In its May 16-22 issue, The Economist describes in gory detail the state of affairs above and below the waterline: “It is overfished, chiefly in coastal waters, but also in the great expanses that belong to no state. The sea is increasingly used as a rubbish bin, filled with poisons, plastics and other pollutants. Parts of it are infested with pirates. All of it is growing alarmingly acidic, as the carbon dioxide spewed out by modern activities finds its way into the briny.
And much of the CO2 that causes this problem derives from oil and gas made less scarce by the reserves now recoverable from below it.” Indeed, Somali piracy, which recently made U.S. headlines with the capture of a U.S.-flagged container ship, came into being after local fishermen lost their livelihood as a result of illegal fishing by Asian, European and Middle Eastern firms and toxic dumping by Western nations in waters off the coast of Somalia.
Russia beat the May 13 deadline by eight years, claiming rights in the Pacific and Arctic oceans in 2001. It reinforced its Arctic claim by planting a flag on the seabed, about 2.5 miles below the North Pole, in 2007. Forty-nine other countries subsequently made claims, including Argentina, Britain, China, France, Ireland, Mauritius, Spain, the Seychelles, South Korea and Tanzania. Some of the claims set the stage for conflict — Canada, Russia and Denmark, for example, may well clash over bids for the North Pole; Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands; China and South Korea over parts of the East China Sea; and Tanzania and the Seychelles over an area in the Indian Ocean. Countries that ratified the treaty after May 13, 1999, such as Canada and Denmark, have 10 years from their date of ratification to make their claims.
The United States did not meet the May 13 deadline. It has yet to ratify the convention, although the provision that raised concerns about economic and security interests was amended to make it more palatable to Washington, and despite support for ratification by the Clinton, Bush and currently the Obama administrations, most of the U.S. Senate and the Pentagon. Ratification remains blocked by conservative senators, who argue that involvement in the treaty will impinge on U.S. sovereignty.
No one, and certainly not the sea, is waiting for Washington to get its act together. Even the world’s smallest and poorest nations are making new territorial claims, from which they stand to reap huge economic gains.