The Continental Shelf Ireland signed, but has not ratified the Convention on the Continental Shelf 1958. Ireland ratified the Law of the Sea Convention in 1996. However, Ireland has thereby effectively adopted the convention.
Under the CSC, the Continental Shelf extends to the seabed and subsoil of submarine areas adjacent to the coast outside the limit of the territorial sea to a depth of 200 metres or beyond that limit to where the depth of the subjacent water admits the exploitation of the natural resources of the said areas and to the seabed and subsoil of similar submarine areas adjacent to the coast of islands.
The Continental Shelf Act 1968 vests the right to the State outside territorial waters over the seabed and subsoil for the purpose of exploring the seabed and exploiting their natural resources in the Minister. Natural resources are generally understood to refer to mineral and other non-living resources of the seabed and subsoil together with living organisms belonging to sedentary species, i.e., organisms which at the harvestable stage are either immobile on or under the seabed or are unable to move except in constant contact with the seabed or subsoil.
The Continental Shelf Act permits the government to designate any area as an area over which the above rights may be exercised. The rights are accordingly exercised when the government designates an area. The State has may have made orders under the Continental Shelf Act by statutory instrument. The offshore areas have been progressively expanded and are being consolidated from time to time.
Ireland has an extensive Continental Shelf due to its geographical location. It may extend to 450 miles and considerably more at some points. The present designations extend a considerable distance into the Atlantic and exceeds the land mass of Ireland many times.
The modern definition of the Continental Shelf under the Law of the Sea Convention provides that it is the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas which extend beyond its territorial areas throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin or to a distance of 200 nautical miles from the baseline from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured where the outer edge of the continental margin does not extend to that distance.
The above definition is subject to certain limitations under the Law of the Sea Convention. The outer edge of the margin is fixed by reference to the outer most fixed point at which the thickness of sedimentary rocks at least one percent of the shortest distance from such point to the foot of the continental shelf or a line that delineated by reference to a fixed points, not more than 60 miles from the foot of the continental slope. The fixed points are not to exceed 100 nautical miles in the 2,500-meter isobath.
Some designations conflict due to an absence of an agreed boundary for the Continental Shelf. Some of the Ireland and UK designations conflict particularly in the northwest area around the island of Rockall. Britain and Ireland have agreed to submit disputes to settlement by international arbitration.
Rights to the Continental Shelf are not lost by non-exercise under the Law of the Sea Convention. However, in marginal cases, protests are appropriate to preserve claims for potential arbitration. Although not formally a principle, the International Court of Justice may take account of the effective position of principles similar to estoppel. Although it is not formally part of the law, principles of acquiescence and estoppel are likely to apply.
There are considerable definitional uncertainties regarding the extent of the Continental Shelf. This is an on-going issue under the United Nation Conference on the Law of the Sea and is evolving. States prepare their submissions based on criteria which have been the subject of negotiations and discussions.
The point comprising the line of the outer limits of the Continental Shelf of the seabed drawn un accordance with LOSC criteria is not to exceed 350 miles from the baseline or shall not exceed 100 nautical miles from 2,500 meter isobath, which is the line connecting the depth of 2,500 meters. However, the identity of the 2,500 metre isobaths and how it is assessed to tell subject to contrary arguments. States must produce scientific evidence of the outer limits.
Party states may submit a claim on the extent of the Continental Shelf to the Commission on the limits of the Continental Shelf. The Commission makes recommendations based on the submission and the criteria above. This is necessary respect to claims to Continental Shelf outside the 200 nautical miles zone. The Commission does not examine submissions by states in dispute unless all parties agree.
Ireland has sought to maintain at the UN Conferences on the Law of the Sea that rocks in particular Rockall does not generate its own Continental Shelf. The UK annexed Rockall in the 1950s for military purposes. It is a small uninhabitable rock off the northwest Irish coast. The United Kingdom has pursued its claim in the Rockall region based on connection with the Scottish mainland and the claim has been downplayed in recent years.
The Island of Rockall Act 1972 by the United Kingdom parliament laid claim to the island/ rock which is the remaining over water part of a vast underwater plateau larger than the island of Ireland. Ireland has not made a formal claim to the rock but has denied that is capable of generating an entitlement in international law to a Continental Shelf designation. Denmark and Iceland have similarly rejected a claim that the rock generates any seabed rights.
Negotiations have been on-going with a view to reaching agreement on the territorial rights to the Rockall Hatton Basin. Representatives of four countries claiming rights, UK, Ireland, Iceland and Denmark entered negotiations over the rights. The boundary will be determined the United Nations Commission on the limits of the Continental Shelf. The Parties have a number of years in which to make submissions. This relates to the territorial rights over the Continental Shelf in the area rather than the ownership of the island. It is likely that the states will come to a deal on the division of the seabed in the area.
The agreement between Britain and Ireland on the Continental Shelf delineation has effectively removed the significance of ownership of Rockall from a non-continental shelf resources perspective, and the 200-mile economic zone perspective.
The UK has rolled back its 200 mile fishery zone based on Rockall. The island may still have significance as a cut-off point reference to a continental claim based on the British mainland, although it is not clear that this is sustainable.
Both Denmark , the Faroe Island and Iceland made designations over the Rockall plateau, which overlap existing Irish designations. Ireland has not opened up blocks in the disputed Rockall region and has limited its 1998 frontier licensing round to within 200 miles of the Irish coast. It may be that the ultimate arrangements involve revenue sharing in respect of seabed resources beyond the 200 mile limit in the Rockall area.
Ireland has claimed criminal jurisdiction over acts or omission on installations or within 500 meters of them in designated or functional designated areas. The acts or omissions must be connected with desecration of the seabed or exploitation of its resources. Civil r jurisdiction is similarly claimed.
The consent of the Minister/Department is required to place any structure in the designated areas. This may be refused if it would cause an obstruction to navigation. The Minister may for the purpose of protecting installation prohibit ships from entering designated areas specified in the order. Statutory instruments have been made in respect of the Kinsale, Ballycotton and Corrib fields.
A coastal state has exclusive jurisdiction under the Law with the Sea Convention over a person’s physical health, safety, immigration matters, including health and safety concerning structures and installations. There is significant amount of environment legislation relates to the protection of the sea environment.
A Safety Zone is established around the installations of 500 metres. Ships may not enter without consent of the Minister in accordance with the international law of the sea convention.
The rights in respect of the Continental Shelf do not extend to the deep seabed beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. The deep ocean floor is regarded as an international resort for the common heritage of mankind. The Continental Shelf stretches out to the outer edge of the Continental margin only.
The technology for mining and accessing resources in the deep seabed is not yet available. The United Nations General Assembly has declared that the states are bound to refrain from activists of exploitation of the resources of the area of the seabed and ocean floor and subsoil beyond the limit of national jurisdiction pending establishment of an international regime.