Adding clarity to the Law of the Sea

Euromed Basic Present-day Maritime Boundary Map (002)


27 Jun 2023


Robert van de Poll, Fugro Global Director Law of the Sea

Adopted in 1982, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is a vital treaty instrument setting out the rules that govern the use of the world’s oceans and their resources. Fugro supports it by providing the world’s most extensive and complete database on all required United Nations Law of the Sea, legal and scientific matters relating to maritime boundaries. The Fugro Law of the Sea (LOS) database, is continually updated, based on past 2,200 projects across 146 countries (integrating proprietary data supplied by governments and industry), along with the latest coastal nearshore-shallow waters satellite imagery and local surveys.

The oceans cover more than 70 % of the Earth’s surface. It is an invaluable resource that requires protection. The rules established by UNCLOS contribute to this objective by governing all uses of the oceans and their resources.

What is UNCLOS?

UNCLOS is a collection of legal rules and scientific principles which enables all governments and users, around the globe to keep marine operations orderly and productive, while having a consistent framework methodology, which is globally and consistently applied, to ensure peaceful marine applications for Governments and industry in all marine waters.

As well as embodying all the traditional maritime rules, UNCLOS constantly evolves through the application of those rules by coastal states, international courts and tribunals. Importantly, it also provides a robust framework within which specific areas of the Law of the Sea can be further developed.

Why is it important?

For hundreds of years, it was widely accepted that while coastal nations had jurisdiction over a thin ‘sea belt’ along their coastline, the oceans belonged to everybody.

However, during the 20th century this ‘free for all’ approach proved woefully inadequate, evidenced by marine pollution from oil tankers and severely depleted fish stocks in some coastal waters.

UNCLOS sets out rules governing a multitude of marine issues. All UNCLOS member countries must abide by these rules, for the benefit of coastal states or the common benefit of mankind. This ensures offshore activities in the Territorial Sea (12nm), the Contiguous Zone (24nm) and the Exclusive Economic Zone (200nm) now have a global framework agreement that countries will follow and abide by these rules (legal and scientific).

Examples include:

  • Establishing rights concerning freedom of navigation;

  • Exclusive economic or fisheries zones;

  • Defining territorial sea boundaries;

  • Extending continental shelf rights;

  • Making marine shipping safer and more environmentally friendly;

  • Protection against pirate attacks;

  • Creating effective mechanisms to resolve conflicts.

IMO IMLI Joint Photo

Left to right: Robert Van De Poll , Global Director Law of the Sea, Fugro and Dr Pieter Bekker, Partner, CMS UK & Chair in International Law, University of Dundee

As the creator of Caris-LOTS, the most sophisticated software for plotting maritime boundaries available on the market, Robert van de Poll is the world’s pre-eminent geo-scientist when it comes to determining maritime boundaries with pinpoint accuracy. It has been a pleasure to team up with him for multi-disciplinary projects across the globe, profiting from Fugro’s database and contacts. Our legal-scientific collaboration is truly unique.

Dr Pieter Bekker

Partner, CMS UK & Chair in International Law, University of Dundee

Fugro Global Law of the Sea database

Since joining Fugro in 2006 the unique 100-terabyte Global Law of the Sea database has continually been developed and updated, with more than 2,200 Law of the Sea projects in 146 of the 162 coastal states that are targeted for this global marine application. The Global Database uses the Law of the Sea Management software (Caris LOTS, Law of the Sea software, now known as the World Standard software).

All Fugro Law of the Sea projects begin with materials sourced from this database, which provides advanced intelligence where, using precision mapped present day specific site information, such as Geo-data, that is not commonly available to the general countries and/or public sector. This ensures the right “by-the-book” LOS results will neutrally be available, that we use to advise governments and industry on specific applications to enhance the services we provide to our clients. The database is a one-stop global data source for making Law of the Sea decisions.

LOS Maritime Boundaries Sample Map

Defining maritime boundaries

The Law of the Sea, and maritime boundary delimitation, in particular, involves a combination of geoscience and international law, the two disciplines being intertwined. In 2015 Robert co-founded DOLFIN (Dundee Ocean and Lake Frontiers Initiative and Neutrals) with Professor Pieter Bekker, a Dutch partner at leading UK energy law firm CMS. DOLFIN is a know-how platform dedicated to the legal and scientific aspects of maritime boundary delimitation. Many governments and organisations use it to gain clarity on maritime boundary issues

Together with Professor Pieter Bekker, we have been leading the way in the Law of the Sea. In October 2021 the United Nations’ International Court of Justice was fixing the disputed maritime boundary between Somalia and Kenya in the Indian Ocean. The Court had relied on a relatively small-scale nautical chart based on dated surveys that did not reflect the physical reality of the coast – this was apparent from Fugro’s study of high-resolution satellite imagery.

Two weeks after Robert and Peter’s online commentary an article titled; 'The World Court Fixes the Somalia-Kenya Maritime Boundary: Technical Considerations and Legal Consequences', was published in December 2021, pointing out obvious errors in the ruling and so the Court changed two key coordinates of the adjudicated boundary in its judgment. This demonstrates the effectiveness and impact of this unique collaboration. In August 2022, a follow-up and more detailed Somalia-Kenya Maritime Boundary ruling article was published by Brill-Nijhoff Netherlands inThe International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law 37 (2022) 413–457

To make sure the Global Law of the Sea database remains the world’s most accurate information source of its kind, we continually update it and share new details through Law of the Sea data which Robert manages daily, uses and has applied to over 2,200 projects in 146 of the 162 countries that we globally look after.

Three-quarters of all maritime law applications come from detailed scientific data analysis. Given Fugro’s analytics expertise, it is not surprising that our unique scientific collaboration with CMS is inspiring specialists in international maritime law.

Did you know?

Just under 50 % of the world’s maritime boundaries remain undelimited

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Seawatch Buoy waiting to be deployed



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