Showdown on the Strait of Gibraltar


The dispute between Spain and Odyssey Marine has taken an interesting turn. A Spanish court has ordered the interception of two of Odyssey’s vessels if they decide to leave Gibraltar. The two ships are currently moored in Gibraltar. The Spanish Culture Minister Carmen Calvo said “International laws are behind us and if anything outside the law occurred it will have an answer, and what is ours will return to Spain.”

Odyssey has been secretive about where exactly they discovered the record shipwreck. Some have speculated that the wreck was in international waters off the coast of England. However Spain apparently feels otherwise, especially as Odyssey vessels were doing marine research in Spanish waters recently.

Over at Opinio Juris, Julian Ku has some interesting things to say, as does Anton Zeilinger in the comments. It seems the international boundaries of the territorial waters are very unclear. The maritime boundary between Spain and Gibraltar and between Spain and Morocco is unresolved. Even if Odyssey wanted to send its ships through the Suez canal, its not clear when they would be passing through Spanish waters.

The upshot is, states need to resolve their maritime boundaries. For a very interesting example of that problem, in the Adriatic, you can see an article my colleague Jernej Letnar Cernic has co-authored with Matej Avbelj, The Conundrum of the Piran Bay: Slovenia V. Croatia – The Case of Maritime Delimitation, forthcoming in the Journal of International Law & Policy, available on SSRN.

Spain is taking a very aggressive line with Odyssey marine. Perhaps they are attempting to get Odyssey to reveal the location of the wreck. Spain wants to be real sure the wreck was in international waters, or it may want to send its own salvage and archaeological teams to study the wreck. The dispute will certainly continue, and the forthcoming federal admiralty case in Florida is going to be very interesting.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

1 thought on “Showdown on the Strait of Gibraltar”

  1. This is extremely an interesting and complex case, similar to the case of delimitation of maritime border in Boka Kotarska bay between Croatia and Montenegro. In my view, the most salient factor in this case should be whether the ships have been found within 12 nautical miles off the coast of Giblartar or not.

    Now, Spain has never officially recognized British sovereignty over territorial waters around the city of Giblartar, especially in the Bay of Algeciras/Gibraltar area. Spain claims that Britain has no right to territorial waters, except for a small portion in the Gibraltar port area in accordance with the Spanish interpretation of the Treaty of Utrecht. However, problem with this interpretation is that it contradicts in United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Article 2 of this Convention states that
    1. The sovereignty of a coastal State extends, beyond its land territory and internal waters and, in the case of an archipelagic State, its archipelagic waters, to an adjacent belt of sea, described as the territorial sea.
    2. This sovereignty extends to the air space over the territorial sea as well as to its bed and subsoil.
    3. The sovereignty over the territorial sea is exercised subject to this Convention and to other rules of international law.

    In 1967, Britain stated that it “fully reserved its right with regard to British territorial waters on the Gibraltar side of the median line in the Bay.” According to UK arguments for territorial waters (and air space) in the Bay and Straits area around Gibraltar, both international customary and conventional law would seem to support the British claim.
    Now, it appears the Spain does not have much of the argument for arguing that Giblartar territorial waters do not extend 12 nautical miles off its west coast. Additionally, there is de facto British presence in Gibraltar since the 18th century gives it a right to territorial waters in the Bay and Straits area around Gibraltar; both international customary and conventional law support the British claim. It should be noted that different rules for maritime border delimitation apply in semi-closed bay. Bay of Algercias is only 8 km wide, hence the probable border between Spain and UK would be somewhere in the middle. Again it depends where exactly in the sea ships were found. If they were found within 12 nautical miles of the west coast of Giblartar, Spain does not have much of the argument. However, if ships were found in bay of Algericias then dispute will be even more difficult to resolve.

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