13 March, 2013

Map: The Falkland Islands' Disputed Seas

The Falkland Islands, a South Atlantic territory disputed between the U.K. and Argentina, held a status referendum this week in which 99.8% of voters defied Argentina by choosing to remain British. But it's not just about the islands - also at stake are legal rights to the sea for hundreds of miles around.
Map of maritime jurisdiction in the seas surrounding the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), including territorial sea, internal waters, and exclusive economic zone (EEZ)
Zones of maritime jurisdiction around the Falkland Islands, highlighting area disputed between the U.K and Argentina. Map by Evan Centanni (country coastlines from the Natural Earth dataset).
The Disputed Seas of the Falkland Islands
The Falkland Islands are administered by the U.K. as an overseas territory, but are also claimed based on historical arguments by Argentina, which calls them "las Islas Malvinas". Both countries have signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which defines ownership and legal rights for the waters surrounding coastal countries. According to the UNCLOS, each country is entitled to three basic zones of control in its surrounding seas:

Internal Waters
These areas normally include bays and the water between islands or between the islands and the mainland. With some exceptions, internal waters are considered legally equivalent to rivers and lakes, which means the country has total control here. Both the U.K. and Argentina claim an area of internal waters in the Falklands, though their claims are slightly different. Only the British claim is shown on the map above - the Argentine claim is a bit smaller, excluding the channel between the two main islands but stretching farther out to the most distant rocks.

Territorial Sea
The territorial sea is an area stretching up to 12 nautical miles out from the edge of the land or internal waters, which is considered sovereign territory of the state (i.e. an actual part of the country), though the "innocent passage" rule requires that foreign ships still be allowed to sail there without permission. Both the U.K. and Argentina claim a 12 nautical mile territorial sea surrounding the Falkland Islands. The two countries' claims are slightly different because they're drawn from the edges of the differing internal waters claims. The U.K. claim is shown on the map above (the small circle at the bottom is the territorial sea around Beauchene Island).

Flag of the Falkland Islands Territory Name:  
Falkland Islands (English)
• Islas Malvinas (Spanish)
• United Kingdom (U.K.)
• Argentina
Actual Control: U.K.
Status: Overseas Territory (self-governing)
Capital: Stanley
Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)
Although the waters beyond the territorial sea are not considered part of the country itself, the country still has some legal rights over the surrounding ocean, up to a maximum distance of 200 nautical miles from the coast or internal waters. This is called the "exclusive economic zone", and here countries can control the harvesting of resources, scientific research, and environmental protection. When two countries are less than 400 nautical miles apart, they have to come to an agreement about where to draw the border of their EEZs (the default is normally to draw a line halfway between the two coasts).

The Falklands are indeed less than 400 nautical miles from mainland Argentina, but the Argentine government doesn't consider this to be a problem, because they consider both the mainland EEZ and the Falkland EEZ to be theirs. The U.K. also claims the waters around the Falklands (though it calls them a "fishery conservation zone" instead of an EEZ), but draws its line short of the halfway point between the islands and Argentina. This might be intended as a show of modesty, though Argentina isn't flattered, since it doesn't think the U.K. should be there in the first place.

The Continental Shelf
Beyond the end of the EEZ, countries are also allowed to claim economic rights to the seafloor (but not the water above it), if it is part of the "continental shelf". The legal definition of this term is a bit different from the way geologists use it, but the basic idea is that if the continent or landmass extends out a ways underwater before giving way to the deep sea, the shallow area is the continental shelf.

This is limited to 350 nautical miles from the shore, as well as detailed rules defining the required depth and slope of the sea floor. But since the U.K. and Argentina both also claim South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (not to mention parts of Antarctica), their conflicting continental shelf claims continue southeast from the Falklands EEZ for hundreds of miles. If you're interested in this extended disputed territory between the U.K. and Argentina, check out this excellent online map made by Durham University's International Boundaries Research Unit.

Who Really Controls the Seas of the Falkland Islands?
Actual control of these seas follows the U.K.'s claims, since that's the country that actually controls the islands. Argentina insists this is illegal, and even temporarily occupied the islands in 1982; but it's unlikely control will change any time in the near future, since the U.K. insists it won't go against the will of the islanders (most of whom are proudly British, and many of whom have bad memories of Argentina from the 1982 war).

Graphic of the Falkland Islands flag is in the public domain (source).


  1. Geo-political situation is such that Argentina's claim remain legal but according to UNCLOS three basic zones of control surrounding Falk Island waters that means UK & Argentina has the rights over the island. The Plabecite shows the majority of its citizens want to be with UK. It is better to have political dialogues between Arg & UK instead of clash/conflict over territorial areas of the Falk Island.This is a similar case like Taiwan and China for territorial claims. Sankaku island dispute between Japan and China in the East China sea.

  2. The Malvinas are Argentine by nature and history

    1. There is no historical link with Argentine and the Falkans, they were breifly controlled by spain and never by Argentinia. The native population don't want to be ruled by Argentinia which imposess itself like an imperial power.

    2. There were British settlers on these Islands before there was an Argentina!! Argentinians have been brain washed for decades, they learn a false history in primary school. I feel sorry for them. Look after your own country before trying to grab others!

    3. Stephen Luxton02 June, 2013 17:46

      If you think they are Argentine by nature then you have clearly never been there and have no idea what you are talking about. They are about as un-Argentine as any place you could find anywhere in the world.

      Much the same applies to your view of 'history'!

    4. British since 1594. Effective occupation after 1765. The sovereignty of the Falklands clearly belongs to the UK. Argentina has never had any claim.

    5. Maybe they should go back to France - the first country to actually settle the islands. They named the islands les Malouines (which is where the Spanish name comes from) after the French city of Saint-Malo.

  3. The UK first settled the islands 80 years before Argentina existed. Their claim to 'Inherit' the islands from spain is not recognised by Spain and their brief attempt to colonise the islands required British permission which was revoked in 1833 for acts of piracy and mutiny.

    1. Spain maintained its own claim until 1863.

  4. This supposed self spun spirit of "self determination" by the Falklanders, is in reality and actuality a farce. It is a mind set and mentality, a supposed sentiment as such created as a reaction, not in genuineness, and through years of subtle and suggestive cultural and political propaganda held primarily at the social level and a disproportionate military hue presence compared to the small population of the islands, over an elaborate campaign highly intensified by the it's promoter, the British Government, after the War of '82. It is not, I repeat, NOT the classical notion we have all come to understand as "A people who want build their own country irrespective of their origins, or are determined to make peace with those they had conflicts with in the past". No, that is not the case, they clearly have been honed to respond through a referendum that they wish to continue their subsidiary across the globe relationship to Great Britain. In fact this recent referendum did not even offer a choice to vote on any other alternative, other than abstention. How many people on the islands abstained from voting?? 0.2% ! .... Now, does that sound to you like a people who simply want to be "...free to chose and decide their own future irrespective of Great Britain or Argentina..." As is being shamelessly officially stated and the United Nations Committee for Decolonization ?

    1. "In fact this recent referendum did not even offer a choice to vote on any other alternative, other than abstention." you are an idiot for sure, referenda never offer multiple questions, the answer is always YES or NO, the islanders had two choices, they chose YES, but they had the alternative to vote NO. If they had voted NO, they could have declared independence on the next day.

    2. Nice to see that the BIGGEST idiot on the Internet, namely Patrick Regini, or AKA Twadick makes a comment on a Subject he knows nothing about as usual!

    3. Patrick Regini, you should be ashamed of yourself writing such nonsense which isn't even slightly true.

  5. Brazil supports the malvinas are argentine