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What are Territorial Waters?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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The term “territorial waters” is used to refer to bodies of water which are under the direct control of a nation or state. By convention, lakes and rivers within a country are automatically considered territorial waters, since they are bounded by the nation's land. Therefore, the term is usually used specifically in reference to the ocean waters which surround the nation's coastline. In a dispute over these waters, the state which controls the waters is known as the littoral state. The issue of territorial waters is very serious, as the claim on these waters also includes the airspace above them and the natural resources below the water.

By convention, merchant ships have what is known as the right of “innocent passage” in territorial waters. Ships which harvest natural resources must apply for permission from the littoral state, as must ships on military exercises. When a hostile ship enters the territorial waters of a nation, the government reserves the right to fire on them without warning; likewise for enemy aircraft and submersibles.

Originally, most nations accepted that territorial sea rights extended three nautical miles from the coastline, with most countries drawing connecting lines between headlands and other protrusions to smooth out their coastlines. In the later part of the 20th century, many nations extended this claim to 12 nautical miles of ocean, and this is conventional in many regions of the world. Most nations have laws governing conduct in their territorial waters, and they actively pursue criminals in their sovereign ocean territory.

Ocean which has not been claimed is generally known as international waters. Conduct on international waters is governed by international treaty, with all nations recognizing that safe passage across the ocean is an important component of international relations and trade. Fishing fleets from all nations may freely use international waters, although treaties may dictate fish quotas and handling procedures to protect fisheries. All nations can also technically exploit mineral resources in international waters, assuming that they can reach them.

Given that the natural resources of the ocean are immense, territorial waters have been a subject of dispute. During the Cod Wars between Iceland and Britain, for example, Iceland extended its claim of territorial waters in an attempt to protect the delicate cod fishery. The British rejected the claim, and a full out war began, with opposing ships ramming reach other, sabotaging nets, and exchanging insults.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly are territorial waters?

Territorial waters, also known as a territorial sea, extend up to 12 nautical miles from a country's coastline. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, this zone is recognized as the sovereign territory of the state, where it has exclusive rights over the waters, seabed, and subsoil, including the natural resources therein.

How are territorial waters different from international waters?

Territorial waters are under the jurisdiction of the coastal state, whereas international waters, also known as the high seas, begin beyond the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which is up to 200 nautical miles from the baseline. In international waters, no state has sovereignty, allowing for freedom of navigation and overflight for all.

Can foreign vessels pass through territorial waters?

Foreign vessels have the right of innocent passage through territorial waters, as long as they do not threaten the peace, security, or environment of the coastal state. This passage must be continuous and expeditious, without any fishing, weapons practice, spying, or pollution activities, as outlined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

What rights do countries have over their territorial waters?

Countries have the right to exploit, manage, and conserve the natural resources within their territorial waters. They can also regulate passage, enforce laws concerning customs, taxation, immigration, and pollution, and have exclusive rights to the construction and use of artificial islands and installations, as per international law.

How are the boundaries of territorial waters determined?

The boundaries of territorial waters are determined by a baseline, which is usually the low-water line along the coast as marked on large-scale charts officially recognized by the coastal state. Straight baselines can be used in certain conditions, such as where the coastline is deeply indented or if there is a fringe of islands along the coast.

What happens if there is a dispute over territorial waters?

Disputes over territorial waters are often resolved through negotiations, arbitration, or adjudication by international courts, such as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides a framework for resolving such disputes, emphasizing peaceful means and respect for international law.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon209843 — On Aug 28, 2011

How does a country know if enemy vessels enters its territorial waters? I know its by some RADARs or SONARs, but I want to know how exactly.

By anon155408 — On Feb 23, 2011

The EEZ was established in accordance with international treaty during Reagan's presidency. It was in no way a "land grab" by Reagan. As it became obvious that there existed substantial resources offshore, it became necessary to extend the traditional three mile limit - and avoid such things as the Cold War.

Under the treaty all littoral countries agreed that they have economic interests ("rights") for up to 200 miles off their shores. Where countries have a mutually held strait, they generally have split the difference. Examples are between India and Sr Lanka, and between Indonesia and Malaysia. Within the EEZ a country can exert rights to all economic benefits it can accrue; however this in no manner restricts other countries' vessels rights to innocent passage.

By anon33377 — On Jun 05, 2009

What is innocent passage?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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