Understanding the Fisheries Case

Let us have a look for this new Public International Law article at the Fisheries Case. The territory of a State is the basis of its sovereignty, the basis of its power. Thanks to its territory, whether it is land, air or sea, the State then has many resources that it can use in order to develop its economic growth, technical progress and trade relations. Representing such challenges, the territory is very often a source of conflicts between States. Many Agreements, Conventions and Treaties have been concluded between States in order to establish rules for the management of these territories. For example, the 1982 Montego Bay Convention divides maritime space into different categories and sets out the legal regime for each of them. It clearly determines which area belongs to the territory of a State and which area does not belong to it. The Chicago Convention of 1944 does the same thing, but this time for airspace and establishes a system of authorisations for the crossing of these airspaces.

In the United Kingdom versus Norway Case of 1951, also known as the Fisheries Case, the dispute is over a maritime area where fishing was an important resource: the point was to figure out how much of that maritime zone was Norwegian, where Norway would have exclusive fishing rights, and how much was considered as high seas, meaning that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland could freely fish in this zone. The dispute dates from the mid 1930’s. In 1935, Norway implemented a decree which explains that certain fishing zones or grounds located at its northern coast were reserved only for its own fishermen. To counter attack this decree, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland argued that the baselines described in the decree were not conform to the general direction of the coast and were not drawn in a reasonable manner.

In 1949, concerning the Fisheries Case, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland submitted a request to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in order for it to determine with precision the extent of Norwegian maritime territory in the area of the dispute. The country also asked for financial compensation claiming that its fishing vessels were prevented from continuing their activities. Furthermore, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland complained that the claims of Norway were against the rules of Public International Law. The main point was to determine if the lines of delimitation of the Norwegian decree were valid in regards of the International Law.

One of the issues was that the coastal zone of Norway is quite “confused”. Indeed, it is very mountainous, often broken by fjords and bays, meeting in the way a lot of islands, islets and reefs. The least we can say is that the coast does not constitute a clear line between the land and the sea. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland divided its argument into four main points. The first argument resided in the fact that Norway could and should only draw straight lines across bays to determine the base lines. Then they went deeper into the argumentation by stating the fact that some of the lines did not follow the general direction of the coast or did not follow it correctly as well as not respecting certain connection of sea and land separation. For the third argument, they demonstrated that the Norwegian system of baselines delimitation was unknown to the British and that Norway did not provide a historic title enforcement over some of the fjords. Eventually, the fourth argument was more technical explaining that the length of lines drawn on the formations of the Skaergaard fjord must not exceed ten nautical miles.

For its defense, Norway on the Fisheries Case replied that they should draw lines following the natural direction of the coast. Moreover, Norway added that it was within its rights to claim fjords and sounds (large sea or ocean inlets) as well as their territorial waters, using the reason of its historic title to these lands which the Court agreed to.

By a judgement of December 18, 1951 concerning the Fisheries Case, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Norway’s claims over the maritime zone were conform to the International Law concerning the ownership of a sea space. By ten votes to two, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) explained that the method used by Norway to delimit and implement the baselines were not contrary to the International Law. This point is actually quite important and has several consequences for other States. According to a CIA report of the case, by agreeing with the Norwegian method, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) implied that each nation has the right to determine its territorial sea using criteria such as “geographical realities”, historical precedent and economic necessity. This solution implies that more and more coastal nations are going to want to extend their maritime territorial zone. It also has various implications for other nations such as Iceland, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Denmark and so on.

Rules have been implemented in order to avoid future conflicts over maritime zone and more specifically over fishing zone. Thus, an exclusive fishing zone has been created: it is an area with a length of twelve nautical miles from the coast in which the State has the right to fish. However, some States wanted to take advantage of their coastal position and wanted to claim a bigger zone in which they will right to fish. The idea was for the States to get a better control in the maritime businesses beyond their territorial limits. It was then the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which established the legal basis for the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This zone stretches from the baseline out to two hundred nautical miles from its coast. It is an area in which the State has a sovereign right to explore, exploit, conserve and manage biological natural resources. However, the precise delimitation of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is also a source of disputes between States: between Norway and Russia, between Italy and Slovenia, between France and Canada, between Canada and the United States of America and so on. The resources contained in these areas are of such a great importance that it becomes vital for countries to have as many as possible.

The growing scarcity of biological resources will only exacerbate the problem of conflicts between coastal states. The Hague Court of Justice will undoubtedly see more and more cases on its agenda over maritime territorial zones and exclusive economic zones conflicts. This is what can be said concerning the Fisheries Case.