OCEANS:

Rising seabed claims swamp U.N. commission

UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. commission charged with checking and certifying nations' claims to seabed stretching hundreds of miles from their shorelines is getting very busy very fast.

The Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf -- a body of specialized undersea geographers and hydrographers established under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention -- has seen its workload double from late last year, fulfilling its members' predictions of a backlog that could take years to resolve.

From 2001 through 2007, just nine claims were put forward as more advanced Law of the Sea Treaty countries surveyed their continental shelves. Giant claims submitted by Brazil, Australia and New Zealand were approved in 2007 and 2008, freeing those nations to prospect for hydrocarbons, mineral deposits or methane hydrates in their newly minted control zones.

But since Japan issued its sweeping claim to Pacific Ocean territory last November, many smaller states have leaped into the fray.

All told, the commission now has 22 applications, some of which include partial claims by the United Kingdom and France over sea bottom around their colonies. Nine claims arrived since Japan's submission, with five of those coming in the first three months of this year.

The newcomers include Burma, Mauritius, Yemen, Suriname and Seychelles. Claims by Uruguay and the Philippines arrived just last week in time for the 23rd session of the commission that wrapped up here Thursday.

And more applications are expected. Canada, Denmark, Portugal, South Africa, South Korea, Vietnam and a few others have said they are conducting surveys and preparing claims. Applications by Argentina, India, Kenya, Maldives, oil-rich Angola and more could arrive next month.

But the commission is working its way through earlier claims as applications pile up.

Of the 22 claims, the commission has fully reviewed and given full or partial approval to just five. For example, the commission has confirmed the Russian Federation's 2001 claims in the Pacific Ocean and the Barents Sea, but it has told Moscow that it needed better data to review its attempt to control a huge swath of the Arctic.

The commission is still working its way through 2006 applications. Commission members are expected to issue their opinion soon on claims off Europe's west coast spelled out in a joint application by the E.U. states of Spain, France, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Work will also soon be concluded on the commission's review of claims made by Norway in the Arctic and Atlantic and a small claim by Mexico for control of a patch of territory in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Commission members speaking on background say these three applications are sound and will likely win approval.

Tensions rise

Diplomatic tensions are rising with the applications as dormant territorial disputes resurface.

In February, China and Korea responded critically to Japan's claim to seabed off distant islands that it controls. The dispute centers around Okinotori, an outcrop that is found nowhere near Korean or Chinese waters. The two claim Japan's Okinotori is in fact a rock, not a habitable island, and therefore does not qualify under Law of the Sea rules.

"Available scientific data fully reveal that the rock of Oki-no-Tori, on its natural conditions, obviously cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of its own, and therefore shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf," the Chinese government says in its letter to the U.N. secretary-general.

And more serious conflicts are emerging.

France has signaled its intention to claim continental shelf abutting the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, French territories very close to the east coast of Canada. The Canadian government has issued a strongly negative reaction, insisting that France and Canada have already settled on a maritime boundary through a bilateral treaty.

Argentina's forthcoming application is expected to include seabed surrounding the Malvinas, otherwise known as the Falkland Islands, which are controlled by the United Kingdom.

The most serious potential for disputes is in the Arctic, where Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia all have competing claims.

Russia says it controls land beneath the North Pole, though Canadian media reports suggest there is growing evidence that Denmark could have a stronger claim through its administration of Greenland. Canada and Denmark still have unresolved territorial disputes in the high Arctic, and Russia and Norway have not fully delineated their maritime borders there.

Currently, the United States, Canada and Denmark are cooperating in exploring and mapping the subsurface features of the Arctic, gathering scientific data that will likely go into future submissions to the U.N. continental shelf commission.

But the United States is not legally eligible to participate in the process, as Congress has yet to ratify the Law of the Sea. Commission members have in the past said that they would most likely have to ignore a U.S. application if Washington submits one.

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