Maritime Boundaries

On September 8, 1972, the Supreme Revolutionary Council (Somalia’s central government) led by Mohamed Siad Barre declared the country’s territorial sea extend from shoreline out to 200 nautical miles (NM). The declaration gave Somalia sovereign rights over this section of ocean and the resources within it. At the time, there was no international convention about the size of territorial seas. Many countries claimed only the first 12 NM from shore, but it was not uncommon for a country to claim more extensive waters.

In 1989, Somalia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which contains guidelines for claiming territorial waters and an exclusive economic zone (EEZ). UNCLOS defines territorial waters as the first 12 NM from shore. An EEZ is the waters outside a country’s territorial sea and within 200 NM from shore or the median line between two countries’ coastlines. In the EEZ, a country has sovereign rights over the waters and the resources within it, including fish and mineral rights. For EEZ boundaries to be internationally recognized, a nation’s government must make an official declaration through an UNCLOS process.  Upon ratification, Somalia did not harmonize their claims and laws with UNCLOS. This created confusion for vessels fishing in Somali waters: there was no internationally recognized maritime border within which a fishing vessel could gain legal license to fish.

The Federal Government of Somalia sought to resolve the discrepancy in 2014 by officially declaring its EEZ under UNCLOS, which superseded their previously claimed territorial waters. This progress toward increased governance over the Somali maritime space was accompanied by a degree of controversy. By drawing the EEZ boundary out to 200 NM off the northeast point of Somalia, the EEZ includes islands that are under Yemeni control. Yemen formally objected to the declared Somali boundary; however, this maritime dispute is not a current priority in the face of Yemen’s current civil unrest. Djibouti has also filed a formal objection to a small portion of the declared Somali EEZ that encroaches on Djibouti’s waters and traditional fishing area.

Kenya, Somalia's southern neighbor, has another dispute over the Somali EEZ. The recently declared EEZ claim extends the maritime border between the two countries along the same trajectory as the land border. In contrast, Kenya’s declared EEZ extends along the line of latitude from the land border, which parallels its EEZ border with Tanzania. This creates a “wedge” of disputed maritime space. Though the maritime territory itself is important, the greater significance of the wedge lays under the sea floor where oil deposits have been detected and leased by Kenya to oil drilling companies. There is consequently significant economic incentive for both countries to have jurisdiction over this slice of ocean. Initially, Kenya and Somalia signed a memorandum of understanding to settle the matter without intervention from the international courts system. In 2016, after repeated failed attempts at compromise, Somalia brought the matter before the International Court of Justice. The court has ruled that the case should go to a full trial and resolution on this matter could be delayed for years.

Jurisdiction over the resources extracted from these disputed parts of the ocean is in question. Delaying the extraction of these resources, whether oil or fish, means a delay in revenue for whichever country is found to have the legal EEZ designation. Furthermore, confusion over who can fish in or utilize these portions of ocean may facilitate illicit activities or resource conflicts between citizens of the two countries involved.

In addition to declaring their EEZ in 2014, the Federal Government of Somalia chose to extend their territorial waters from 12 to 24 NM in their revised Somali Fisheries Law. The law states:

The protection zone that protects coastal fishermen and in which fishing vessels are not permitted to enter is up to 24 nautical miles. Only coastal fishermen are allowed to fish within 24 nautical miles.

Though it is clear that the nearshore areas are reserved for Somali fishers, foreign vessels are known to fish in those areas as well. There has been significant intergovernmental and international discussion over whether this foreign fishing should be allowed, with particular focus on bottom trawling in sensitive coastal habitats.

The confusion over who has access rights to fish within 24 NM from shore has resulted in competition for the fisheries in that zone. Clashes on the water between Somali artisanal fishers and foreign commercial fishers have resulted in gear destruction and violence. A revised version of the federal fishing law that harmonizes the existing federal and state laws could go a long way toward alleviating this conflict.

Go To Project Badweyn Overview and Interactive Map

Data Attribution and License Information

Data visualizations and written content by Paige M. Roberts.

Data for Claimed Territorial Sea (1972-2014) obtained from Claus S., N. De Hauwere, B. Vanhoorne, F. Souza Dias, P. Oset García, F. Hernandez, and J. Mees (Flanders Marine Institute) (2017). See website for data download and license information.

Data for Declared EEZ (2014) and Declared EEZ Contested Areas obtained from United Nations,

Shoreline data to create 24 NM Territorial Sea obtained from Wessel, P., and W. H. F. Smith, A Global Self-consistent, Hierarchical, High-resolution Geography Database. SOEST, University of Hawai’i, Honolulu, HI. See website for data download and license information.


Federal Republic of Somalia Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources. “A Review of the Somali Fisheries Law (Law No. 23 of November 30, 1985), in accordance with Article 79, Paragraph (d) of the Federal Constitution of Somalia.”

Federal Republic of Somalia Office of the President. “Proclamation by the President of the Federal Republic of Somalia, dated 30 June 2014.”

Neumann, Thilo and Tim Rene Salomon. “Fishing in Troubled Waters – Somalia’s Maritime Zones and the Case for Reinterpretation.” American Society of International Law Insights 16:9 (2012).

The President of the Supreme Revolutionary Council. Law No. 37. Law on the Somali Territorial Sea and Ports. September 10, 1972.

United Nations Law of the Sea. “Somalia.” Maritime Space: Maritime Zones and Maritime Delimitation. Accessed August 28, 2017.

United Nations Oceans & Law of the Sea. “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982.” Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. Accessed August 8, 2017.