Where the romance of the high seas ends

Pirates, protestors and plunderers—the high seas spawn romantic tales of danger and adventure.

Senior Lecturer Joanna Mossop inside the control deck of a navy ship

But for island nations such as New Zealand, what laws protect our environment, trading routes, sustainable fisheries and exploration and extraction of oil and gas when the law is based on a concept of freedom of the seas dating back centuries? These issues are key to research by senior lecturer in law Joanna Mossop.

“I have flown over the northern and western parts of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and it was fascinating to see the number of fishing vessels sitting just outside its 200 nautical mile limit. This reinforced for me that New Zealand has a lot of stock in understanding what’s going on both in the EEZ and on our extended continental shelf,” Joanna says. “This is even more important for our Pacific neighbours who have rights to large expanses of the ocean and virtually no capacity to monitor activities there.

“Given that 98 percent of exports from, and imports to, New Zealand travel by sea, it is important we know that our trading routes are secure and that the environment is protected.”

Joanna’s research interests lie in public international law, including the Law of the Sea Convention—an international agreement covering the use of the world’s oceans.

Within the EEZ, all the seas’ resources are covered by national laws. New Zealand also has rights over resources on our extended continental shelf, some 1.7 million square kilometres of seabed (confirmed in 2008 by the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf)—an area about six times that of New Zealand’s land.

“From a legal standpoint, we need to define what this means. Because the extended continental shelf is under the high seas, our rights are limited to the living and non-living resources of the sea bed,” Joanna says. “So we have no claim to the fisheries in the water above. But our rights to the sea bed include sponges and coral attached to the sea floor; so could New Zealand stop ships from other countries from bottom trawling there (towing a fishing net along the sea floor and scooping up everything in its path)?”

Joanna explores this critical area of international law in her first book, The Continental Shelf Beyond 200 Nautical Miles: Rights and Responsibilities, to be published by Oxford University Press in December. The book is the consolidation of several years of research, supported by a grant from the New Zealand Law Foundation.

Joanna says the world’s governments have been so focused on establishing the outer limits of their continental shelf that nobody has had a good look at the ensuing rights and responsibilities, as she has in the book, which is the first on the subject in the English language. It covers protests at sea, fishing, exploration and extraction activities around oil and gas, security and access.

“There is a certain amount of ambiguity over the extent of rights for the extended continental shelf and I hope this book will lay the groundwork for international law discussions over the next five to 10 years,” Joanna says.