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Geomorphic Basis for National-International Boundaries on Ocean Floor1

Hollis D. Hedberg
Hollis D. Hedberg
Professor emeritus of geology, Princeton University, Princeton New Jersey 08540.
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January 01, 1981


A major problem for the Law of the Sea Conference continues to be the development of a satisfactory basis for drawing a boundary between national and international jurisdictional domains for mineral resources beneath the oceans. An early proposed formula for this boundary of 200 n. mi from shore is still riding on its initial momentum but has had to be modified and repaired to lessen its more obvious inequities until it has now become an unworkable hodgepodge involving not only 200 n. mi, but also the base of the slope, thickness of sediments, a limit of 350 mi from shore, and a 2,500-m isobath. This confused situation has been brought about in part by failure to recognize that the proper boundaries for the ocean surface (navigation), the ocean water body (fishing), and the ocean floor (mineral resources) should be considered independently and need not be coincident.

More than 10 years ago I first proposed a single, simple, and natural boundary formula for the ocean floor which could be uniformly and appropriately applied to islands and continents and narrow-margin and broad-margin countries alike. It still appears far superior to any other plan, and so many of its tenets have now been adopted that it would be only a short further step to adopt it in toto.

This proposal may be called the "base of slope-boundary zone" formula. Its principal feature is reliance on the base of the continental (or insular) slope as a general guide to the drawing of a precise boundary by the coastal state itself within a boundary zone of internationally prescribed width adjacent to the approximate base of slope line on its oceanward side. The proposal calls for an international technical marine boundary commission to draw an approximate base-of-slope line and to make sure that the precise boundary line is drawn within the prescribed limits of the boundary zone. Boundaries of oceanic islands would be drawn in the same manner as for continents but related to the insular slope rather than the continental slope. Boundaries of shelf-slope island deentirety between the adjacent countries.

Principal objections to the currently dominant 200-n. mi-from-shore formula, in contrast to the base of slope-boundary zone formula, are its purely artificial character and its fundamental lack of relation in principle to the natural rights and real needs of the countries with respect to jurisdication over mineral resources under the oceans. This makes satisfactory uniform worldwide application impossible. It is also particularly defective with respect to islands and in its neglect of special provisions for restricted seas.

The paper takes up the various individual U.S. coasts and shows by maps and profiles the comparative application of various proposed boundary formulas to each. It particularly brings out what would be the seriously adverse consequences to the United States in northern Alaska, the Bering Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic coast, of failure to support the base of slope-boundary

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AAPG Studies in Geology

Energy Resources of the Pacific Region

Michel T. Halbouty
Michel T. Halbouty
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American Association of Petroleum Geologists
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Publication date:
January 01, 1981




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