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Story: Law of the sea

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has been cited as one of the UN’s greatest achievements. It provided international checks and balances on the use of the oceans. For coastal nations such as New Zealand the benefits were huge – securing control of fisheries and other resources in exclusive economic zones.

Story by Bill Mansfield
Main image: Mare liberum (1609) by Hugo Grotius

Story Summary

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Conflict on the ocean

Several hundred years ago, countries such as England, Holland, Portugal and Spain sent ships out to explore or to trade, and built up powerful navies. There were no rules about who owned different parts of the ocean, and many battles were fought at sea, to win control.

The freedom of the seas

In the 1600s people began to believe that no nation should own a piece of the sea. All countries should be able to sail freely to other lands and take resources, such as fish or whales. This idea was known as ‘the freedom of the seas’. It became the rule around the world, and lasted for centuries. Any country could use any part of the ocean for travel, for fishing, or for trading.

New Zealand: an isolated country

For many years New Zealand favoured the freedom of the seas. Because ships had to cross thousands of miles of dangerous seas to reach New Zealand, it was important that no rules could stop ships carrying goods and passengers to and fro.

Changing attitudes

By the late 1950s some coastal countries changed their views. They wanted to protect the oceans surrounding them. Ships from powerful nations could threaten their safety, or take fish and other important resources.

The United Nations

The United Nations held conferences to sort out these problems. Many countries met to discuss ways to protect their ocean regions.

In 1974 New Zealand and Pacific Island countries joined other countries who said they wanted to control the seas close to them. Fisheries were important for the future, and they did not want to compete with fishing boats that arrived from distant countries such as Japan.

A new rule

Finally in 1982 the United Nations adopted a Convention on the Law of the Sea. This gave coastal countries like New Zealand their own areas of ocean, from which to take fish and other resources. It also protected the rights of other countries to sail through coastal areas as well as the high seas. Smaller coastal nations felt more secure.

Benefits for New Zealand

Because of the 1982 convention, New Zealand gained a huge area for fishing and mining, called the Exclusive Economic Zone. It extends for 200 nautical miles (371 kilometres), and New Zealand is allowed to control the taking of resources in it and to ensure that the resources are not used up too quickly.

How to cite this page:

Bill Mansfield, 'Law of the sea', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/law-of-the-sea (accessed 21 November 2017)

Story by Bill Mansfield, published 12 Jun 2006