Senator Murkowski Addresses Law of the Sea Treaty During Foreign Relations HearingMr. Chairman – thank you for holding this hearing and the opportunity to comment on a
treaty that is of particular importance to Alaska.
Some of my colleagues may not be aware, but over half of the United States’ coastline is
in Alaska. Likewise, the Arctic Ocean covers only 3% of the earth’s surface, yet it
accounts for over 25% of the world’s continental shelf area. So when we are considering
a Treaty that governs the planet’s oceans and the ocean floor, the people of Alaska have a
very strong interest.
There are some who do not see the point in joining the rest of the world in ratifying the
Convention on the Law of the Sea. They say that the U.S. already enjoys the benefits of
the Treaty even though we are not a member – that by not becoming a party to the Treaty
we can pick and choose which sections of the Treaty we abide by while not subjecting
our actions to international review.
But I would point out, while the situation is favorable now, that may not always be the
case. The Treaty opened to amendment in 2004. Do we want a seat at the table to ensure
our voice is heard, or do we place our interests in the hands of other nations?
I will give one example. When the U.S. declined to sign the Law of the Sea Treaty in
1982 out of concern over deep sea-bed mining provisions in Part XI, one of the
objections was that the United States was not guaranteed a seat on the executive council
of the international seabed authority. With the renegotiation in the 1994 agreement, the
U.S. is essentially assured a seat on the 36-member State Council by virtue of the “largest
economy” provision within the Implementation Agreement.
And I would note that while some decisions by the Council are subject to majority vote if
a consensus cannot be formed, there are circumstances where decisions must be made by
consensus – including the adoption of rules concerning sea-bed mining, and the adoption
of amendments to Part XI of the Treaty. As a party to the Law of the Sea, the U.S. can
promote rules and regulations based on market principles and investment protection. But
if we do not ratify this Treaty, the Senate will have capitulated the United States’ ability
to block unfavorable rules and amendments – including potential amendments that could
revoke the United States’ guarantee of a seat in the Council.
The U.S. waged a global campaign in the developed world to hold off ratifying the Treaty
until the sea-bed mining provisions were changed. We got what we wanted, but still we
have declined to ratify the Law of the Sea. How can we expect parties in the future to
take the U.S. seriously when we negotiate treaties or agreements if we are not willing to
follow through in this instance? I believe it is very important for the U.S. to be a party to
this Treaty and be a player in the process, rather than an outsider hoping our interests are
Now, there are several topics I would like to comment on relating to the Treaty and its
potential impact on Alaska. The first being claims over the continental shelf.
In the 1958 Convention on the Continental Shelf, which the U.S. is a party to, the issue of
limitations on the continental shelf was not resolved due to lack of information about the
continental shelf. With technological advances and greater knowledge the Law of the
Sea provides that a coastal state’s continental shelf can extend for 200 nautical miles,
with the potential to extend that claim even further.
Russia has submitted a number of claims to the Commission on the Limits of the
Continental Shelf that would grant them 45% of the Arctic Ocean’s bottom resources –
first in 2002 and of course the most recent when Russia placed a flag on the ocean bottom
earlier this year. We are fortunate that the Commission so far has withheld its approval
of Russia’s claim.
According to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, if we were to become a party to the
Treaty, the U.S. stands to lay claim to an area in the Arctic of about 450,000 square
kilometers – or approximately the size of California.
But if we do not become a party to the Treaty our opportunity to make this claim, and
have the international community respect it, diminishes considerably – as does our ability
to prevent claims like Russia’s from coming to fruition.
Not only is that a negligent forfeiture of valuable oil, gas, and mineral deposits, but also
the ability to perform critical scientific research. The Arctic Ocean is the most poorly
understood ocean on the planet. Now is the time to be studying the thinning of the polar
cap and its potential impact on the global climate, as well as potential economic activity
in the area – not the least of which is the opening of polar routes for maritime commerce.
Also in relation to the Arctic Ocean – and the potential thinning of the polar cap – is the
opening of polar routes for maritime commerce. There are predictions that the Arctic
Ocean will be ice free for ninety days or more in the summer by the year 2050 – which in
turn translates into greater access, and greater utilization.
By utilizing a polar route, the distance between Asia and Europe is 40% shorter than
current routes via the Suez or Panama Canals – and is in a much more stable part of the
But with greater usage comes greater responsibility. A number of nations have Arctic
research programs. Alaska’s coastline on the Arctic Ocean is over 1,000 nautical miles.
The U.S. can either exercise sea control and protection in this area of the world, or cede
that role to whichever nation is willing to assume it. As a party to the Law of the Sea, the
United States’ ability to enforce our territorial waters and our Exclusive Economic Zone
(EEZ) in the Arctic Ocean is strengthened even further.
Mr. Chairman, the Convention on the Law of the Sea also provides a basis for several
international treaties with great relevance to our nation’s most productive fisheries, which
occur off the coast of Alaska and are of significant value to the economies of Alaska and
other Pacific Northwest states.
The Convention on Straddling and Highly Migratory stocks provides both access to, and
protections for fish stocks which migrate through the high seas and the jurisdictions of
other countries. Among the stocks for which this agreement is of paramount significance
is the Bering Sea stock of Alaska pollock, which is the basis for this country’s largest
The Convention on Fisheries in the Central Bering Sea is another critical piece, which
allows us an unprecedented degree of control over the activities of other fishing nations
in the central portion of the Bering Sea, beyond both the U.S. and the Russian Exclusive
Economic Zones. Without the influence of the Law of the Sea, neither of these important
fishing agreements would likely have come into being.
Also, Mr. Chairman, let me note the importance – and the somewhat fragile status of –
our maritime boundary agreement with Russia. As you may know, this agreement
delineates a specific boundary between our two countries. It is necessary because the
agreement under which the United States acquired what is now the State of Alaska was
interpreted differently by the two parties.
Both the boundary agreement, and the fisheries enforcement mechanisms that stem from
it, are critical to the conduct of fisheries policy in the U.S. and Russian EEZs in the
Bering Sea. Although the United States ratified the maritime boundary agreement
shortly after it was presented to the Senate, the Russian government has yet to do so,
under pressure both from nationalist political interests and Russian Far East economic
interests. While observing the provisions of the boundary treaty, the Russian government
also has attempted to persuade the U.S. to make a number of significant concessions
regarding Russian access to U.S. fishery resources, suggesting meanwhile that such
concessions would improve the atmosphere for Russian ratification.
The terms of the boundary treaty are widely regarded as highly favorable to the United
States, and are themselves consistent with the Law of the Sea. However, rejection of the
latter by the United States could trigger similar rejection by the Russian Duma of the
boundary treaty. If that were to occur, it would extremely difficult to renegotiate the
boundary agreement with similar positive results for the United States.
The United States and Alaska have tremendous interests in the Arctic Ocean. Our
technological capabilities in calculating the extent of the continental shelf are welcomed
by other nations. As a party to the Law of the Sea Treaty, we have the opportunity to
stake our claim to a significant chunk of real estate that has the potential for impact on
our economy and our national security.
We also have the opportunity to further U.S. leadership in the international community
on maritime issues and ensure the continuation of those provisions in the Convention that
are so vital to the United States’ fisheries industries.
The Convention on the Law of the Sea has my strong support and I look forward to its
consideration on the Senate floor.