Law at sea
The world’s oceans are an increasingly busy working environment that has to be carefully regulated in order to maintain the safety of the vessels using it, as well as the security of resources and maintenance of the natural environment. Some of this regulation has a long historical legacy, with the speed of change increasing since the 19th century. Laws and regulations have had to adapt to maintain pace with developments in ships and technology and how the seas themselves are used by mankind.
Law at sea is divided into two distinct regimes:
Maritime law (also known as Admiralty law) governs maritime questions and offences and deals with matters of:
- Sailors; and
- Transportation of passengers and goods by sea.
It is one of the oldest legal regimes and can trace its roots back to Rhodian Sea Law (probably written between 600-800AD). Maritime law was introduced to the UK by Eleanor of Aquitaine (Richard the Lionheart’s mother), who had learned about it while on a crusade in the eastern Mediterranean.
Today, much of Maritime law has been influenced by incidents at sea. The Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention was developed directly from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. More recently, the International Safety Management (ISM) code has been heavily influenced by the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster in 1987, as well as a number of other high profile accidents at sea.
In modern shipping laws, the key legislation to comply with is developed and regulated by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which was created by the United Nations in 1958. The IMO focuses on improving safety at sea by developing international regulations that are followed by all shipping nations. It also sets out a number of international conventions specifically aimed at maritime safety, such as the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS). Read more about Maritime law →
Law of the sea
Law of the sea is distinguished from Maritime law as it governs the relationships between nations and as such deals with:
- Navigational rights
- Mineral rights
- Jurisdiction over coastal waters
- International law governing relationships between nations.
Traditionally, a coastal state exercised control over its adjacent Territorial Waters up to 3 miles offshore, as this was the range of a cannon shot, while everything else beyond was ‘International Waters’ – free to all nations, but belonging to none.
However as exploitation of the seas further from land has increased, coastal states have sought to control the use of the seas and rights to natural resources beyond their territorial limits. For example, the UK extended its Territorial Water to 12 miles in 1987, while an increasing number of states (including the UK) have established rights over an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) out to 200 miles.
Since 1994, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has regulated these rights. As such, any research activity that the NOC undertake in waters controlled by a coastal state is governed by UNCLOS and permission is required to carry out that research.
International relationships at sea are defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which resulted from the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (1975-82). UNCLOS came into force in 1994; a year after Guyana became the 60th state to ratify it. Read more about the Law of the sea →