MACLEAN’S REPORTS

When men go down to the seabed for riches, who will divide the spoils?

WALTER STEWART August 1 1969
MACLEAN’S REPORTS

When men go down to the seabed for riches, who will divide the spoils?

WALTER STEWART August 1 1969

When men go down to the seabed for riches, who will divide the spoils?

THE FIRST TIME I read Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard, I was brought up short by two prophetic, greed-inspiring lines:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,

The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear.

Boy, I thought, wouldn’t it be neat to have a submarine and go down to one of those unfathom’d caves and pick up a gem or two of purest ray serene! Now, of course, it’s being done, not with submarines but with derricks and drills and explosives. The bowels of the ocean are being prodded and poked and made to disgorge mineral treasures beyond anything Gray, with his idle chatter of gems, ever dreamed of. Diamonds are being mined off Africa, tin off Malaysia, iron off Japan, sulphur off the U.S. and oil is being sucked from the seabed off half a dozen coasts, including Canada’s.

The process has barely begun, the techniques are scarcely developed, and already Canada’s offshore oil potential is measured in hundreds of billions of gallons, and the world’s total undersea mineral wealth is reckoned in trillions of tons. With all that loot waiting, a certain amount of pushing and shoving among nations was inevitable, and

has already begun. Canada, for instance, is engaged in a dispute with France over resource development on our continental shelf, which we say belongs exclusively to us and the French say, because of their ownership of the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, near Newfoundland, should be shared with them. The dispute is still at the stage of guarded words and tight smiles, but once seabed-mining techniques become sophisticated enough to be hugely profitable, the scene will be set for a first-class row.

The trouble is that there is no formal structure of law to govern the sharing of undersea wealth. The only ground rules so far were laid down at a Geneva Convention in 1958, where it was stated that every coastal state owns resource rights on its own continental shelf. This was defined as the area out to a water depth of 200 meters or, beyond that, up to the depth the nation could effectively exploit. Such a vague rule suits Canada, which has both a wide, shallow continental shelf and a deep technological reach, but it does not suit nations where the seabed plunges steeply off the mainland, and they are not prepared to honor it. Thus, eight Latin-American nations have set their own resource limits at 200 miles off shore, making a hash of whatever accord existed.

When two nations disagree about division of the seabed the convention ruled that, except where “special circumstances” prevail, the resource line should be drawn halfway between them. A line halfway between Canada and St. Pierre would give France a rich slice of our offshore resources, so Canada is pleading “special circumstances” in that, as an external-affairs official put it, “St. Pierre and Miquelon are just two pimples in the sea, and not mainland France.”

If rules can be formed to govern the continental shelves, there will remain the question of mid - ocean development. Some nations, including Canada, argue that this “no-man’s water” should be exploited by some form of international regime, under UN auspices, for the benefit of all mankind, with special attention to the needs of developing nations.

Clearly some rule must be found — other than the rule of snatch — to prevent serious conflict over the world’s seabed treasures. But the prospects are not bright. After all, we in Canada have not even been able to get federal - provincial accord over sharing offshore oil reserves; what then are the chances of, say, China and the U.S. agreeing to split the spoils off Pago-Pago? WALTER STEWART