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The Present Nature and Extent of Maritime Zones in the Mediterranean Sea

Wednesday, 22 February 2012
by Tullio Scovazzi, Professor of International Law, University of Milan-Bicocca, Italy
The Present Nature and Extent of Maritime Zones in the Mediterranean Sea
1. An Overview

The general rules of international law on the regime and extent of maritime zones within national jurisdiction, as set forth in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), apply also in semi-enclosed seas, such as the Mediterranean Sea[1]. Despite a certain number of maritime boundaries waiting to be agreed upon by the Mediterranean States concerned, there is no doubt that States bordering enclosed or semi-enclosed seas are entitled to establish exclusive economic zones whenever they wish to do so, even though for geographical reasons they cannot claim a full size 200-mile zone[2]. International law does not prevent States bordering seas of limited dimensions from establishing their own exclusive economic zones[3], provided that maritime boundaries are not unilaterally imposed by one State on its adjacent or opposite neighbouring States[4].

In the case of the maritime zones established in Mediterranean Sea, which is surrounded by twenty-two coastal States[5], a number of peculiarities must be taken into account that make the present picture particularly complex.

Not all the Mediterranean coastal States have so far decided to establish an exclusive economic zone.

Some coastal States have proclaimed beyond the territorial sea sui generis zones, namely a fishing zone or an ecological protection zone. While neither of them is mentioned in the UNCLOS, they are not prohibited either. They encompass only some of the rights that can be exercised within the exclusive economic zone. Such a fragmentation of rights seems compatible with the applicable rules of international law, also on the basis of the general principle that the right to do less is implied in the right to do more (in maiore stat minus). The current picture of national coastal zones is summarized hereunder.

2. Present Mediterranean Maritime Zones

(A) Internal Waters  

As regards internal waters, several Mediterranean States (Albania, Algeria, Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Italy, Libya, Malta, Morocco, Montenegro, Spain, Tunisia and Turkey) apply legislation measuring the breadth of the territorial sea from straight baselines joining specific points located on the mainland or islands. Historical bays are claimed by Italy (Gulf of Taranto) and Libya (Gulf of Sidra).

Territorial Sea

Most Mediterranean States have established a 12-mile territorial sea. The exceptions are the United Kingdom (3 n.m. for Gibraltar[6] and the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia on the island of Cyprus), Greece (6 n.m.) and Turkey (6 n.m. in the Aegean Sea, but 12 n.m. elsewhere).

(C) Fishings Zones

Five States have declared a fishing zone beyond the limit of the territorial sea.

Based on legislation dating back to 1951 (Decree of the Bey of 26 July 1951) which was subsequently confirmed (Laws No. 63-49 of 30 December 1963 and No. 73-49 of 2 August 1973), Tunisia has established along its southern coastline (from Ras Kapoudia to the frontier with Libya) a fishing zone delimited according to the criterion of the 50-meter isobath[7]. In 1978, Malta established a 25-mile exclusive fishing zone (Territorial Waters and Contiguous Zone Amendment Act of 18 July 1978). Under Legislative Act No. X of 26 July 2005, fishing waters may be designated beyond the limits laid down in the 1978 Act and jurisdiction in these waters may also be extended to artificial islands, marine scientific research and the protection and preservation of the marine environment.

In 1994, Algeria created a fishing zone whose extent is 32 n.m. from the maritime frontier with Morocco to Ras Tenes and 52 n.m. from Ras Tenes to the maritime frontier with Tunisia (Legislative Decree No. 94-13 of 28 May 1994).

In 1997, Spain established a fishing protection zone in the Mediterranean (Royal Decree 1315/1997 of 1 August 1997, modified by Royal Decree 431/2000 of 31 March 2000). The zone is delimited according to the line which is equidistant between Spain and the opposite or adjacent coasts of Algeria, Italy and France[8].

In 2005 Libya established a fisheries protection zone whose limits extend seaward for a distance of 62 n.m. from the external limit of the territorial sea (General People’s Committee Decision No. 37 of 24 February 2005), according to the geographical co-ordinates set forth in General People’s Committee Decision No. 105 of 21 June 2005.

(D) Ecological Protection Zones

Three States have adopted legislation for the establishment of an ecological protection zone.

In 2003, France adopted Law No. 2003-346 of 15 April 2003 which provides that an ecological protection zone may be created. In this zone France exercises only some of the powers granted to the coastal State under the exclusive economic zone regime, namely the powers relating to the protection and preservation of the marine environment, marine scientific research and the establishment and use of artificial islands, installations and structures. A zone of this kind was established along the French Mediterranean coast by Decree No. 2004-33 of 8 January 2004 which specifies the co-ordinates to define the external limit of the zone. The French zone partially overlaps with the Spanish fishing zone.

In 2005, Slovenia provided for the establishment of an ecological protection zone (Law of 4 October 2005)[9].

In 2006, Italy adopted a framework legislation for ecological protection zones (Law No. 61 of 8 February 2006) to be established by decrees. Within the ecological zones, Italy will exercise powers which are not limited to the prevention and control of pollution, but extend also to the protection of marine mammals, biodiversity and the archaeological and historical heritage. The first of the implementing enactments is the Decree of the President of the Republic of 27 October 2011, No. 209, which establishes an ecological protection zone in the Ligurian and Tyrrhennian Seas.

(E) A Fishing and Ecological Zone

One Mediterranean State has established a zone for both fishing and ecological purposes.

On 3 October 2003, the Croatian Parliament adopted a “decision on the extension of the jurisdiction of the Republic of Croatia in the Adriatic Sea” and proclaimed “the content of the exclusive economic zone related to the sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the living resources beyond the outer limits of the territorial sea, as well as the jurisdiction with regard to marine scientific research and the protection and preservation of the marine environment, whereby the ecological and fisheries protection zone of the Republic of Croatia is established as of today” (Art. 1). However, on 3 June 2004, the Parliament amended the 2003 decision in order to postpone implementation of the ecological and fishing zone with regard to Member States of the European Union.

(F) Exclusive Economic Zones

A number of States have established, or officially announced the establishment of, an exclusive economic zone.

In 1981, Morocco created a 200-mile exclusive economic zone (Dahir No. 1-81-179 of 8 April 1981), without making any distinction between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean coasts.

Upon ratifying the UNCLOS on 26 August 1983, Egypt declared that it “will exercise as from this day the rights attributed to it by the provisions of parts V and VI of the (...) Convention (...) in the exclusive economic zone situated beyond and adjacent to its territorial sea in the Mediterranean Sea and in the Red Sea”.

By Law No. 28 of 19 November 2003 Syria provided for the establishment of an exclusive economic zone.

Cyprus proclaimed an exclusive economic zone under the Exclusive Economic Zone Law adopted on 2 April 2004.

Tunisia established an exclusive economic zone under Law No. 2005-60 of 27 June 2005. The modalities for the implementation of the law will be determined by decree.

Under a declaration of 27 May 2009 and a decision of 31 May 2009, No. 260, Libya proclaimed an exclusive economic zone. The external limit of the zone will be determined by agreements with the neighbouring States concerned.

By a framework Law adopted on 19 September 2011 Lebanon established its exclusive economic zone. Three annexes define the limits of the zone between Lebanon and, respectively, Syria, Cyprus and Palestine.

In fact, while the Mediterranean may be considered today a sea in transition towards a generalized exclusive economic zone regime, some high seas areas still exist in this semi-enclosed sea. This particular situation must be taken into consideration as far as the present regional regimes of fisheries or of the protection of the marine environment are concerned.


  1. The Mediterranean Sea is a semi-enclosed sea according to the definition provided by UNCLOS Art. 122: “For the purposes of this Convention, ‘enclosed or semi-enclosed sea’ means a gulf, basin or sea surrounded by two or more States and connected to another sea or the ocean by a narrow outlet or consisting entirely or primarily of the territorial seas and exclusive economic zones of two or more coastal States”.
  2. For geographical reasons there is no point in the Mediterranean which is locate at more than 200 n.m. from the nearest land or island.
  3. In fact, exclusive economic zones have been established in other semi-enclosed seas, such as the Black, the Baltic and the Caribbean Seas.
  4. As remarked by the International Court of Justice in the judgment of 18 December 1951 on the Fisheries case, “the delimitation of sea areas has always an international aspect; it cannot be dependent merely upon the will of the coastal State as expressed in its municipal law. Although it is true that the act of delimitation is necessariliy a unilateral act, because only the coastal State is comptent to undertake it, the validity of the delimitation with regard to other States depends upon international law” (International Court of Justice, Reports of Judgments, Advisory Opinions and Orders, 1951, p. 20).
  5. Spain, the United Kingdom (as far as Gibraltar and the sovereign base areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia are concerned), France, Monaco, Italy, Malta, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco.
  6. A longlasting dispute is pending between Spain and the United Kingdom as to whether Gibraltar is entitled to a territorial sea.
  7. The area where the Tunisian fishing zone is located is considered by Italy as a high seas zone of biological protection where fishing by Italian vessels or nationals is prohibited (Decree of 25 September 1979).
  8. No fishing zone was established as regards the Spanish Mediterranean coast facing Morocco.
  9. Croatia has objected to the right of Slovenia to establish national coastal zones beyond the territorial sea.

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