Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) were created to allocate living and mineral-based natural resources, such as fish, oil, and natural gas rights by granting countries a 200 nautical mile zone off of their coastlines. While foreign vessels still have the right to freedom of navigation within this zone, they do not have the right to fish or access any resources without permission. For Pacific Island countries, EEZs have not only led to substantial increases in their terrestrial area, but also in their ability to access and protect their aquatic resources.
Since the 17th century, the oceans have been governed by the freedom of the seas doctrine which narrowed a country’s jurisdiction over open waters to a slim belt surrounding its coastlines. While other coastal zones such as the Territorial Seas and Contiguous Zones have been in existence since the Geneva Conventions of 1958, EEZs weren’t established until the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This historic convention established internationally upheld freedom of navigation rights for merchant and peaceful vessels and set EEZ boundaries which created rules for rights to resources found on the continental shelf.
Today, the EEZs of 23 Pacific Island countries span over 10 million square miles, making up to 10% of the world’s total ocean surface area. Several of the small Pacific Islands have relatively large EEZs; the Pacific Island of Tuvalu, which has a land area of 10 mi2, currently claims an EEZ of more than 289,500 mi2. Similarly, the Pacific Island country of Nauru controls an EEZ which is 15,000 times larger than its total landmass.
The creation of EEZs has greatly increased the independence of small island countries that rely heavily on their surrounding sea areas for survival. Most Pacific Island economies critically depend on agriculture and inshore fisheries, which can account for more than half of total domestic employment in some cases. Access to EEZ waters is also important on a dietary level as seafood is the primary source of protein for most Pacific Island residents. The Pacific Islands are home to the world’s largest supply of tuna, an extremely valuable commodity worth as much as $200 per pound. Due to the high value, countries are able to charge fish licensing fees to outside nationals looking to fish within their zones. These fees can make up anywhere from 45% to 98% of total government revenue for many Pacific Island countries. Sea-bed resources such as oil, minerals, and natural gas found within a county’s EEZ have also been capitalized on by Pacific Island countries.
Rising sea levels are a threat to current EEZ boundaries, and have become a crucial issue for many Pacific Island countries. If islands are lost to the sea, EEZs will shrink, leading to potential losses in income. While islands do not need to be inhabited, they do need to be capable of sustaining human life in order to claim access to EEZs.
Jonathan Baldoza and Ruivaldo Freitas Viana are participants in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington.