291. Instruction From the Department of State to Certain Diplomatic Missions 1



  • International Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Law of the Sea


  • CA–4339 of November 8, 1957

In the reference instruction the Embassy was informed that the traditional position of the United States on the question of the exercise by the coastal state of special jurisdiction for fisheries purposes beyond the three-mile limit of the territorial sea is under review.

In connection with the review, it is essential that the Department receive information on an urgent basis concerning the views of certain countries toward a limited application of the principle of contiguous zones in the field of fisheries as a solution to the principal problem creating the pressures for a limited extension of the territorial sea. As indicated in the instruction under reference, this problem arises from the economic factor rather than from concern for conservation. The latter concern or alleged concern has led to the more extreme and less realistic claims. These are less likely to rally support at the Conference not only because of their extreme nature but also because a solution to the conservation problem which, with some modifications, would be satisfactory is contained in the International Law Commission’s proposals. It is evident, therefore, that the economic factor stands as a main threat to the established United States position and to a conclusion at the Conference acceptable to the United States. The economic problem is at the basis of many of the more restrained claims for an extension of the territorial sea and is therefore more likely to win wide support for departures from the established three-mile rule.

The Department desires to determine whether this estimate is correct and whether a proposal which would serve to meet reasonable demands based on economic considerations, but which would retain the three-mile limit, would be likely to result in a conclusion acceptable to the majority at the Conference.

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The Embassy is requested to advert, at its discretion, to this question with an appropriate official at a suitable early opportunity, preferably during discussion of the matters covered in the reference instruction. The discussion should be in terms of an informal inquiry concerning the attitude of the Government towards proposals such as those made by Canada at the last (Eleventh) Session of the United Nations General Assembly, and concerning its estimate of the support which such proposals might receive at the Conference.

The Canadian proposal was that as an alternative to a 12 mile limit of the territorial sea, the states agree on a three-mile territorial sea with a contiguous zone of nine miles within which coastal states would have exclusive jurisdiction over fisheries.

As understood by the Department, the Canadian proposal would confer a right on the coastal state to exercise the same powers over fisheries out to twelve miles that can presently be exercised only in its territorial sea. This would be accomplished under the guise of a special contiguous zone for exclusive fisheries rights. The contiguous zone conceived for fisheries would bestow even greater powers than are envisaged in the present ILC fisheries articles (49–60), which sanction regulatory measures but on a non-discriminatory basis.

The Canadian-type proposal contemplates, in brief, that the traditional freedom to fish within the additional nine miles, which under the existing three-mile rule is enjoyed by nationals of all states, would be terminated. However, freedom of the high seas would be retained within the nine-mile area for other purposes. This would include such freedoms as freedom of navigation, freedom to lay submarine cables and pipelines, and freedom to fly over the nine-mile expanse of waters.

Should the Embassy be questioned concerning the position of the United States with respect to the Canadian proposal or other similar proposals, the reply should be made that in recent discussions within the United Nations and the Organization of American States the United States has maintained its traditional position that the existing rule of international law provides a three-mile limit for the territorial sea, and does not recognize that the coastal state has the right to establish contiguous zones where fishing is reserved exclusively to the nationals of that state. For the Embassy’s information the Department desires to avoid giving the impression at this time that the United States is re-examining its position in the matter.

The Embassy is requested to report by telegram the results of any discussions that may be undertaken pursuant to this instruction.

For Embassies receiving the present instruction for information only: They are requested to report their estimate of the attitude the [Page 599] Government to which they are accredited might take toward proposals of the type discussed in this instruction.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 399.731/11–1357. Confidential. Sent to 36 posts; repeated to 47 others. Cleared by several officers of the Department and by the Departments of the Treasury, Interior, Navy, and Justice and the Maritime Administration and the Federal Communications Commission.