The UK may be about to be expand its territory in an unexpected way, and one that is troubling environmental and marine conservation groups. A recent scientific submission to the United Nations by the British government laid claim to the seabed around the Hatton-Rockall basin to the west of Scotland.
At first sight it seems an innocuous move, laying claim to thousands of square miles of the seabed around the tiny Atlantic outcrop of Rockall, far from shore and hard to reach and better known as one of the shipping forecast areas. But the UK is deadly serious about wanting to claim sovereign rights over the underlying seabed.
The motivation is the discovery of hoped-for lucrative resources in these areas. Oil and gas hold the greatest appeal, but interest is also focussing on untapped mineral seams that may hold vital metals, and biological resources. Many of the starfish, sea cucumbers and other species found on the seabed are thought to offer medicinal properties, such as tumour-shrinking compounds and cholesterol-busting statins.
The claim is in fact part of a global move by every country with a coastline to make underwater land grabs. Traditionally, coastal states are granted exclusive oil and gas rights to waters within 200 nautical miles of their coastlines. But these claims may be extended to up to 350 nautical miles if nations can provide scientific proof that the undersea continental plate is a natural extension of their territory.
Across the world, 50 nations, including the UK, have now submitted claims that will be scrutinised by the UN’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. For good measure, the UK has also laid claim to seabed around Ascension Island and the Falkland Islands. All it has to do is convince the commission that the zones are a natural extension of their dry landmasses. In the case of Rockall, the UK cannot argue the extinct volcano is an island – it measures just 100ft by 83ft, so instead it has presented evidence that it says shows that Rockall is extension of the seabed around the Hebridean island of St Kilda, 160 nautical miles to the east.
But conservation groups have expressed unease at the developments. Politically, too, there may be diplomatic issues to address: Argentina has submitted a competing claim to the Falkland Islands’ seabed, while Iceland also holds an interest in the region around Rockall.
“The local ecology of the area can change a great deal,” said Richard Harrington of the Marine Conservation Society. “Any slow-growing deep-water corals that are removed will take hundreds of years to recover. Any activity would have to be supported by an environmental impact assessment but there is always going to be a local destruction of patches of the seabed.”