Three Pacific countries stake claim to 600,000 sq km of seabed

Area covered in historic submission to UN may prove an important source of natural resources such as oil, gas, minerals and living marine organisms

Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia today formally presented their joint continental shelf submission before the United Nations. 

In the submission, made on 5 May 2009 pursuant to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the three countries jointly claimed an additional 602,000 sq km of continental shelf in an area called the Ontong Java Plateau - an area equivalent in size to the land area of France.

Law of the Sea

The Law of the Sea Convention is a multilateral treaty that establishes a framework of rules and principles to govern all ocean space. The Convention has been ratified by more than 160 countries, including some 47 Commonwealth member countries.

It also represents the only submission to have been made by three small island states anywhere in the world and the first joint submission to originate from the Pacific region. 

This area of seabed covered by the submission may one day prove to be an important source of natural resources such as oil, gas, minerals and living marine organisms, and thereby contribute to the sustainable economic development of the three small island states. 

The Commonwealth Secretariat provided legal and technical advice and assistance throughout the development of the submission and was present in New York to coordinate and participate in the presentation, which was made to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.


The assistance provided by the Secretariat during the development of the submission and presentation included in-house legal expertise and the engagement of scientific and technical experts to provide advice to the government teams as required. 

In his opening address to the Commission, the Permanent Representative of Papua New Guinea to the United Nations, HE Ambassador Robert Aisi, said: "The making of the joint submission stands as a testament to the shared commitment to the Convention and underscores the importance of the continental shelf process to small island and developing coastal States." 

He continued: "This process forms part of the fabric upon which we seek to secure long term improvements to the livelihood of current and future generations of our people." 


What is a continental shelf?

The continental shelf of a coastal state comprises the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to a distance of 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured where the outer edge of the continental margin does not extend up to that distance. (Source: Article 76, 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea)

Joshua Brien, Legal Adviser at the Commonwealth Secretariat and leader of its Maritime Boundaries Programme, noted that "this is a historic achievement for the three countries, which have overcome many obstacles to complete this task. The presentation was world-class and showcased what Pacific Island countries can achieve through dedication, commitment and cooperation."

 Mr Brien noted that the success of the endeavour was the result of a sustained regional effort, which involved the Pacific Islands Applied Geoscience Commission, UNEP Grid-Arendal, Geoscience Australia, AusAid, Geolimits and the National Oceanography Centre based in Southampton, UK.

 "This regional approach has proven to be enormously effective and is now being applied to other Pacific Island countries, which are in the process of completing their submissions," he added.

 The Commonwealth is presently providing maritime boundary assistance to some 17 member countries. Other Pacific Island countries to have benefited from assistance from the Commonwealth in the preparation and presentation of continental shelf submissions include the Cook Islands, Fiji and the Kingdom of Tonga. 

Click here for The Executive Summary of the Joint Submission, which is publicly available