The coastal State exercises sovereign rights over the continental shelf for the purpose of exploring and exploiting its natural resources in accordance with Article 77(1). The principal features of sovereign rights can be summarised in six points:
(i) The sovereign rights of the coastal State over the continental shelf are inherent rights, and do not depend on occupation, effective or notional, or on any express proclamation. Thus a continental shelf exists ipso facto and ab initio.
(ii) The sovereign rights of the coastal State relate to the exploration and exploitation of natural resources on the continental shelf. Non-natural resources are not included in the ambit of sovereign rights of the coastal State even if they are found on the continental shelf.
For instance, wrecks lying on the shelf do not fall within the ambit of sovereign rights over the continental shelf. Sovereign rights are thus characterised by the lack of comprehensiveness of material scope. On this point, sovereign rights must be distinguished from territorial sovereignty.
(iii) The natural resources basically consist of the mineral and other non-living resources of the seabed and subsoil. However, exceptionally, sedentary species are also included in natural resources on the continental shelf. Under Article 77(4), the sedentary species are organisms which, at the harvestable stage, either are immobile on or under the seabed or are unable to move except in constant physical contact with the seabed or the subsoil.
Examples include oysters, clams and abalone. Yet it is debatable whether crabs and lobster fall within the category of sedentary species. Where the coastal State established the EEZ, that State has sovereign rights to explore and exploit all marine living resources on the seabed in the zone.
(iv) Although there is no provision like Article 73(1), there seems to be a general sense that sovereign rights include legislative and enforcement jurisdiction with a view to exploring and exploiting natural resources on the continental shelf. In fact, Article 111(2) stipulates:
The right of hot pursuit shall apply mutatis mutandis to violations in the exclusive economic zone or on the continental shelf, including safety zones around continental shelf installations, of the laws and regulations of the coastal State applicable in accordance with this Convention to the exclusive economic zone or the continental shelf, including such safety zones.
This provision appears to suggest that the coastal State has legislative and enforcement jurisdiction with respect to the continental shelf. Related to this, it must be recalled that Article 77 of the LOSC largely reproduces the 1958 Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf. The commentary of the ILC in relation to the draft provision reflected in Article 77 states that the text setting out the rights of the coastal State in relation to the continental shelf:
leave no doubt that the rights conferred upon the coastal state cover all rights necessary for and connected with the exploration and exploitation of the resources of the continental shelf. Such rights include jurisdiction in connection with the prevention and punishment of violations of the law.
(v) The sovereign rights of the coastal State are exercisable over all people or vessels regardless of their nationalities. Thus there is no limit concerning personal scope.
(vi) The rights are exclusive in the sense that if the coastal State does not explore the continental shelf or exploit its natural resources, no one may undertake these activities without the express consent of the coastal State. At the same time, the exercise of the rights of the coastal State over the continental shelf must not infringe or result in any unjustifiable interference with navigation and other rights and freedoms of other States as provided for in the LOSC.
Overall sovereign rights of the coastal State over the continental shelf are limited to certain matters provided by international law. With respect to matters provided by international law, however, the coastal State may exercise legislative and enforcement jurisdiction over all peoples regardless of their nationalities in an exclusive manner. In essence, rights over the continental shelf are spatial in the sense that they can be exercised solely within the particular space in question regardless of the nationality of persons or vessels. Hence, like the EEZ, the sovereign rights of the coastal State over the continental shelf can also be regarded as a limited spatial jurisdiction.
In addition to these sovereign rights, the coastal State has jurisdiction with regard to artificial islands, marine scientific research, dumping and other purposes. Relevant provisions can be summarised as follows.
First, under Article 80 of the LOSC, Article 60 concerning the coastal State’s jurisdiction over artificial islands is applied mutatis mutandis to the continental shelf. It follows that on the continental shelf, the coastal State has exclusive rights to construct and to authorise and regulate the construction, operation and use of (a) artificial islands, (b) installations and structures for the purposes provided for in Article 56 and other economic purposes, and (c) installations and structures which may interfere with the exercise of the rights of the coastal State in the zone. The coastal State also has exclusive jurisdiction over such artificial islands, installations and structures, including jurisdiction with regard to customs, fiscal, health, safety and immigration laws and regulations.
Second, on the continental shelf, the coastal State has jurisdiction with regard to marine scientific research in accordance with Articles 56(1)(b)(ii) and 246(1) of the LOSC. Article 246(2) makes clear that marine scientific research in the EEZ and on the continental shelf shall be conducted with the consent of the coastal State. However, with regard to the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles, the discretion of the coastal State is limited by Article 246(6), the first sentence of which provides:
Notwithstanding the provisions of paragraph 5, coastal States may not exercise their discretion to withhold consent under subparagraph (a) of that paragraph in respect of marine scientific research projects to be undertaken in accordance with the provisions of this Part on the continental shelf, beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured, outside those specific areas which coastal States may at any time publicly designate as areas in which exploitation or detailed exploratory operations focused on those areas are occurring or will occur within a reasonable period of time.
At the same time, this provision seems to suggest that within ‘those specific areas in which exploitation or detailed exploratory operations focused on those areas are occurring or will occur within a reasonable period of time’, the coastal States may exercise their discretion to withhold consent if, as provided in Article 246(5)(a), a research project is of direct significance for the exploration and exploitation of natural resources. Furthermore, the restriction in Article 246(6) does not apply to the withdrawal of consent relating to marine scientific research on the basis of Article 246(5)(b)–(d).
Third, Article 210(5) of the LOSC makes clear that the coastal State has the right to permit, regulate and control dumping on the continental shelf. At the same time, the coastal State has enforcement jurisdiction with respect to pollution by dumping on the continental shelf.
Finally, Article 81 provides: ‘The coastal State shall have the exclusive rights to authorize and regulate drilling on the continental shelf for all purposes.’ The phrase, ‘for all purposes’, seems to suggest that the exclusive rights of the coastal State concerning drilling on the continental shelf are not limited to the purposes of exploration and exploitation of natural resources.