U.S. Continental Shelf
The continental shelf of the United States is divided into four sections:
- Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf
- Pacific Outer Continental Shelf
- Gulf of Mexico Continental Shelf
- Alaskan Outer Continental Shelf
These regions are further divided in the Atlantic and Pacific to include north, mid, and south regions. This is peculiar to the United States. Each individual state is afforded control of the first nine nautical miles from the coastline so that federal jurisdiction doesn’t apply until that point.
The U.S. Federal Government thus controls the area from 9 nautical miles to 200 nautical miles from the coast. In some areas, if the continental shelf can be shown to extend past the 200 nautical mile mark, an area up to 100 nautical miles or the region that the shelf extends to can be claimed by the country.
The importance of this geopolitical definition can be seen in information on the U.S. Department of State website. The U.S. Department of State claims that “preliminary studies have indicated that the U.S. Extended Continental Shelf (ECS) likely totals at least one million square kilometers -- an area about twice the size of California", and that, “given the size of the U.S. continental shelf, the resources we might find there may be worth many billions if not trillions of dollars."
While you may think of resources such as gas and oil that can be drilled for in the shallow region of the continental shelf, the vast majority of resources are marine fish. The crab and lobster industries are major economical centers and provide a great deal of money to the Atlantic and Alaskan shelf regions. There are also several rare minerals found in large enough quantity to warrant underwater extraction. These include diamonds, chromite (chromium ore), ilmenite (titanium ore), magnetite (iron ore), platinum and gold.
The purely economic reasoning for the geopolitical definition of the continental shelf of the United States doesn’t mean that we can ignore the geographical definition; it just means that we need to treat it in the same way as we treat country borders in respect to natural geological formations. For example, the northern border of the United States with Canada isn’t defined by a change in geography but rather by agreed upon boundaries. This is essentially what has been done in the case of the continental shelf. The geographical definition is essential in defining the habitats of marine wildlife as well as explaining several natural phenomenon from weather patterns to seasonal migration of species.
In any case, the continental shelf has two very different definitions so when you are using it be sure that you clearly define it as either geographical or geopolitical to avoid any confusion.