What is the Law of the Sea Treaty?

The Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST) is a controversial agreement that defines ocean ownership rights and responsibilities across the globe. This treaty outlines and assigns ocean segments to various countries. In doing so, it also establishes country guidelines for marine businesses, environmental care, and the proper management of marine natural resources.

From Freedom of the Seas to Oceanic Responsibility

Over 400 years, the world’s oceans were essentially open to the public—or at least the wealthy classes who could afford to travel the sea lanes.

From the 1600s up until the 1980s, the oceans were governed by the freedom-of-the-seas doctrine. This doctrine limited a nation’s rights and jurisdiction to a narrow belt of sea surrounding its coastline. As for the rest of the ocean? It was simply considered free of ownership and open to all who dared to traverse it.

Although this doctrine seemed to work fairly well, it allowed for countries to avoid responsibilities pertaining to ocean life, pollution, and offshore resources. Since the ocean didn’t belong to a single country, no government was responsible for maintaining, protecting, or patrolling the waters outside its jurisdiction.

However, in 1982, that all changed with the Law of the Sea Treaty.

LOST was the first treaty developed by the United Nations that sought to establish oceanic boundaries and marine regulations for specific countries. The treaty was specifically conceived to address the following:

  • Oceanic jurisdiction. Under the treaty, areas of the ocean are assigned to the jurisdiction of a specific nation. That nation is charged to follow international law and its own domestic laws is matters dealing with oceans. Potential jurisdictional disputes include the establishment or use of artificial islands and structures, marine research, and the protection and preservation of the environment.
  • Territorial sea limits. Under the treaty, each country controls a territorial sea limit extending 12 nautical miles from its shores. An additional 200-mile “exclusive economic zone” is also established beyond the territorial limit for country-specific marine exploration and conservation of natural resources.
  • Safe passage. Although each country has its own oceanic boundaries and jurisdiction under the Law of the Sea Treaty, the treaty also guarantees safe passage for peaceful ships (including commercial vessels and non-wartime military ships) through these waters.
  • Environmental precautions. Under the treaty, countries are required to adhere to policies that regulate deep-sea mining, and maintain control and prevention of oceanic pollution.

Treaty Benefits LOST on U.S. Politicians

Over the past 34 years, numerous countries have ratified the treaty, while some have merely signed the accord. A few UN members, including the United States, have refused to sign, despite…

  • The urging of other countries. Since 1982, 166 nations have ratified the treaty as a result of concern over the oceans’ well-being. Supporters argue that ocean environments will remain in serious peril unless nations are assigned responsibility for specific areas.
  • Approving the treaty’s provisions. The U.S. has played a very active role since the beginning of this treaty and agrees with most of the provisions. However, some lawmakers feel LOST might lead to an embellished taxing authority being extended to cover other expansive resource areas, such as outer space.
  • Accepting and following the treaty’s provisions. The U.S. voluntarily follows many of the rules set out in the treaty. In fact, most of the rules on the Law of the Sea Treaty are the same as provisions within current maritime and environment protection laws.

Although the U.S. has not officially approved the Law of the Sea Treaty, it continues to support many maritime laws—such as the Jones Act—to protect seamen, offshore employees, and the environment. For more information on maritime laws or to speak to someone about a recent offshore accident, contact attorney Steve Lee today. You can call us directly at 713-921-4171 to schedule your FREE consultation, or you can initiate a live online chat by clicking on the prompt on this page. Either way, we’re here to help you better understand your rights and reassure you that you do have options after a maritime accident.

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