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The search for the Franklin Expedition ships and Canada's Arctic sovereignty claims...by David K. Jones, Bernard LLP - Subscriber Access Only

By BCShippingNews 16 November 2014

The search for the two Franklin expedition ships — Erebus and Terror — achieved a historic milestone in September 2014 with the discovery of Erebus. The search team was led by Parks Canada with public and private partners including the Canadian Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Navy, the Arctic Research Foundation, and One Ocean Expeditions.

The Canadian government’s search for the ships has been linked to Canada’s sovereignty claims over Arctic waters. This article summarizes the law of the sea relating to Canada’s claims; highlights issues in Canada’s claims; and explains how the search for the Franklin expedition ships may relate to those issues.

Canada is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS establishes the legal framework for states to claim sovereignty over coastal waters and the sea bed. “Sovereignty” is the right of a state to govern a defined territory through the enactment and enforcement of its laws, and the recognition of those rights by other states. The maritime zones defined by UNCLOS are:

Internal waters: A state may exercise full sovereignty over internal waters within the “baseline.” The baseline follows the low-water line along the general direction of the coast, but it can also encompass the waters of an enclosed bay, with the waters of the bay being internal waters.

Offshore islands may also establish the baseline. For example, the waters of Johnstone Strait and Georgia Strait are internal waters. Canada claims a baseline from Haida Gwaii to northern Vancouver Island, encompassing Queen Charlotte Sound, but the United States disputes that claim based on the length of the line. The official baseline on B.C.’s central coast remains unspecified.