The Pacific is taking a co-operative approach to settling maritime boundaries between countries and it is leading to unprecedented progress, according to an academic who is involved.
The University of Sydney has been running working sessions on Maritime Boundaries and Ocean Governance and a number of Pacific countries have been involved.
The university's School of Geosciences is hosting the meetings.
Professor Elaine Baker spoke to Don Wiseman about the work that is being done.
ELAINE BAKER: We started off with the outermost boundaries that countries have, which is called the Extended Continental Shelf. And not all the countries in the Pacific are entitled to this, but some are. And there was a United Nations deadline for submissions for claims in this area. So that was the impetus for starting the programme. We worked with seven countries on that, built up a core of expertise, and then we were able to address these shared boundaries that countries have. Because apart from this Extended Continental Shelf all coastal states are entitled to a maximum of 200 nautical miles from their baseline, called the Exclusive Economic Zone. If you don't have that much space between you and your neighbours you have to negotiate a shared boundary, so that's what we've been doing at this workshop.
DON WISEMAN: Why is that not an elementary thing, that you take the mid point?
EB: That's a very good point. And sometimes you do. That's the focus that we have here in the Pacific, is an equidistant line. But sometimes there are other things that come into play, resources that might be there or the shape of the sea-floor, the composition of the sea-floor. Those things are sometimes taken into consideration, as well.
DW: In terms of going further than 200 nautical miles it solely comes down to whether or not you have a continental shelf.
EB: That's right. There are guidelines about how you assess that and it's quite complicated. So the countries of the Pacific that have that potential for Extended Continental Shelf all came together to work on the problem collectively. And in some cases they put in joint submissions for these areas of Extended Continental Shelf. And if they're successful then they'll divide up the area at a later stage. But that outer boundary is determined by this Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which is a UN body.
DW: So how far could Exclusive Economic Zones go out, then, in some cases?
EB: Well, the Exclusive Economic Zone is always a maximum of 200 nautical miles. And in that area countries have a right to everything on the sea bed and below the sea bed resources and also rights to whatever is in the water columns, such as fish. But this Extended Continental Shelf, countries only have jurisdiction over what's on the sea bed and below the sea bed, so you don't get fishing rights there. So there's different regulations on that zone.
DW: People with an eye on mining have conjured this up.
EB: Look, it started back in the 1940s with the introduction of sonar when scientists recognised that the continental shelf didn't stop at the shelf break, that continents actually extended further. Working out how this was going to be decided took an enormously long time at the UN. It was a 30-year process before they decided on the guidelines. It was to do with resources, and at that stage actually they massively overestimated the amount of seabed resources and thought it was much more important than it's likely to be. But there are countries in the Pacific who do have potential mineral deposits in this Extended Continental Shelf zone, so it is important for them.
DW: One of the countries that has recently resolved its issues has been Kiribati with the US. And you don't think of the US as being close to Kiribati, but of course they've got some tiny dot islands around, haven't they?
EB: That's right.
DW: Was that difficult?
EB: No... (Laughs) Well, I can say that. It probably was difficult, but it was very amicable. Members of the US State Department came here to the University of Sydney and sat down with the delegation from Kiribati and worked out where the boundaries would be.
DW: When you come down further south into the Pacific there's a far denser concentration of islands and countries. It must start to get very, very complicated.
EB: It does get complicated, but there's a huge will here to get these resolved so that countries have legal certainty over their boundaries.It's especially important for Pacific Island countries in terms of the EEZ because fishing is so important and it means that you cn regulate fishing much more effectively if you know where your territory extends to.
DW: If you have no immediate neighbours, determining where the EEZ goes, it must be a very simple process and no need for any discussion?
EB: That's right. There's no need for any discussion. It's note exactly a simple process because computationally is quite difficult. And you have to measure from a baseline and you have to determine where that baseline is. So for a country like Australia it can be quite complicated. We've got such a long coastline. But it's not super simple. But you're right. It's much less complex than if you've got to negotiate with neighbours.
DW: You've solved the situation with Kiribati. What's next? Are there major issues looming?
EB: I don't think there's any major issues looming. It's just a matter of continuing along. At the beginning of the process for these shared boundaries, apart from the Extended Continental Shelf, the shared boundaries, we had I think 48 shared boundaries and I think we've resolved 20 of them. So we're nearly halfway there. There's still a fair way to go, but people here are very committed to getting this resolved. It's a fantastic process.
DW: How long will it take?
EB: Not sure. (Laughs) I'm not sure. At least another couple of years, I would imagine.