France said Monday it intends to assert sovereign rights over marine resources off its Mediterranean coast, declaring a 70-mile Exclusive Economic Zone in a bid to protect dwindling fish stocks.
French Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo made the announcement during a trip to southern France, saying he hoped that other Mediterranean nations would follow suit to prevent overfishing by fleets from outside the region.
Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an EEZ gives states sovereign rights over fishing and marine resources, outside its 12-mile territorial waters and up to 200 miles from its shores.
France has the world's second largest EEZ after the United States thanks to its many overseas territories, but had not previously staked a claim in the Mediterranean "because there was no justification for doing so," Borloo said.
Paris in 2004 declared an Ecological Protection Zone in the Mediterranean, under the MARPOL anti-pollution convention, enabling it to prosecute ships that dump waste at sea up to 60 nautical miles from its coast.
But Borloo said France needed to go further in order to "protect French fishing, but especially to protect fish."
"The French government has decided to declare an EEZ in the Mediterranean ... with a perimeter of approximately 70 nautical miles, corresponding to our existing environmental protection area," he told reporters.
"We are changing policy because it is unacceptable for boats from around the world to be able to draw on resources, especially of fish, anywhere except in the 15-mile territorial waters, without any control," he said.
He said Paris hoped to "avoid the arrival of powerful industrial fleets in the closed sea of the Mediterranean."
Under the terms of the UN convention, an EEZ gives a coastal state the right to regulate fishing activities, explore and exploit all natural resources within the zone's waters, seabed and subsoil.
States have the right to determine the fish catch and deliver licences within their EEZ, while working to prevent over-exploitation in concert with regional and international organisations.
France's national fisheries committee welcomed the move, saying it would give Paris "the means to exercise controls, even if we are not talking about shutting down any fisheries."
Until now, very few countries have declared exclusive zones in the Mediterranean. Were all coastal states to do so, every point in the sea would fall under one or other state's jurisdiction.
Borloo said France hoped to see more countries decree EEZs within the framework of the Union for the Mediterranean, "and for us to have a debate among ourselves for the total protection of the Mediterranean."
Launched in Paris a year ago, the 43-member grouping aims to foster cooperation in one of the world's most volatile regions, with protecting marine resources one of its main stated goals.
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