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Disputing the Continental Shelf Region in the Aegean Sea:

The Environmental Implications of the The Greek -- Turkish Standoff

Draft Author: Chip Arvantides

Number: 40

Mnemonic: Aegean

Name: Aegean Dispute Between Greece and Turkey


1. Abstract

The Aegean Sea and its islands have been at the heart of the ongoing historical dispute between Greece and Turkey. The primary issues creating tension in the Aegean are the extension of territorial waters, air space restrictions, sovereign juristiction of the island of Imia, and the exploitation and delineation of the continental shelf region. For the purposes of this case study, the latter issue of the continental shelf dispute between Greece and Turkey will be examined. In doing so, the study will analyze issues of the contending sides while discussing the environmental implications of the current dispute and a potential future conflict between the countries.

2. Description

THE POSITIONS OF GREECE AND TURKEY Although the territorial sea question has received greater attention, the dispute over the continental shelf is more complex and has historically generated even more controversy. (1) The Greek position is that customary international law provides the country with exploration and exploitation rights over the continental shelf up to two hundred miles from its coastal and island baselines. (2). Greece cites both the 1958 Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf and its successor, the 1982 Law of the Sea (LOS) Convention in support of their argument; two conventions in which Turkey incidentally did not participate. The jurisdiction over the continental shelf that Greece claims overlaps Turkey’s continental shelf. Due to this fact, the Greek view is that the demarcation line should be a median line equidistant from the relevant baselines. With this interpretation, virtually all of the Aegean seabed, with the exception of that beneath the Turkish territorial sea, would fall under Greek control.

In contrast to the Greek government’s claims, Turkey has contended that much of the Aegean seabed is in fact a prolongation of the Anatolian land mass that is part of Turkey. (3) Turkey further argues that the Greek islands should not be entitled to their own continental shelves, citing the principle of equitable delimitation. However, because it desires to exploit the seabed itself, Turkey has not questioned the sovereign and exclusive right of a coastal state to explore the natural resources of its continental shelf. (4) Scientific exploration of the continental shelf region indicates oil deposits that Turkey would like to exploit.


The current dispute surrounding the continental shelf in the Aegean has deep-seated historical roots that are tied to issues of territorial sovereignty. Past conflicts between Greece and Turkey, exemplified by the savage war fought from 1920 to 1922, have created high levels of distrust between the two nations. At the end of World War II, provisions of the Paris Treaty provided Greece with substantial control of the Aegean Sea and most of its islands. With the discovery of oil by Greece in 1973 off the coast of Thassos, a northern Aegean island, the continental shelf issue was thrust to the center stage of the historical dispute in the Aegean. (5) This occurred as oil prices sharply rose in response to the Arab oil embargo. Shortly thereafter on November 1, 1973, the Turkish government delegated mineral exploration licenses in the eastern Aegean to the Turkish State Petroleum Company and made public a map showing delimitation of respective continental shelves in the Aegean that did not take into account the presence of the Greek islands. The standards set by the map provided Greece with exploration and exploitation rights only in their insular territorial seas. Turkey stated that their continental shelf claims were justified by “special circumstances” related to the proximity of the Greek islands to the Turkish coast. Turkey also stated that the Greek claims meant that nearly 97 percent of the Aegean seabed beyond the Turkish territorial waters would be Greek.

Greece responded to the Turkish actions with protests while Turkey countered by offering to hold talks on the situation. While Greece sought to resolve the issue legally through the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the UN Security Council, Turkey insisted on bilateral negotiations that would take place at the political level. Tensions remained high between the two countries, and were further escalated when Turkish oil freighters conducted exploration of the continental shelf region in both 1974 and 1976, and when Turkey invaded Cyprus. Negotiations between the two countries yielded little in the way of a solution while rulings of both the ICJ and the UN Security Council were ineffective in ending the dispute.

Throughout this period, UNCLOS III (United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea III) was attempting to resolve issues pertaining to the delimiting of continental shelves. Greece and Turkey were actively pressing arguments regarding situations involving their opposite coasts. Greece desired language that sought delimitation by agreements only, knowing that it would receive the continental shelf it was already claiming, unless a different agreement with Turkey occurred; an unlikely event. (6) On the other side, the Turkish government emphasized principles of equity over equidistance, focusing once again on its “special circumstances” argument and determined to rely on negotiations for resolution. (7) Ultimately, in 1982, UNCLOS III did nothing to resolve the arguments of the contending sides and continued to uphold Article I of the 1958 Geneva Convention, heavily emphasized in the Greek government’s view that their control of the continental shelf constituted an international law precedent. Article I states that a continental shelf be defined as

(a) seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas adjacent to the coast but outside the area of the territorial sea, to a depth of 200 metres or, beyond that limit, to where the depth of the superadjacent waters admits of the exploitation of the natural resources of the said areas; (b) the seabed and subsoil of similar submarine areas adjacent to the coasts of islands. (8)

In supporting this principle, UNCLOS III, Article 121, provided that the “ ‘continental shelf of an island [is] determined in accordance with the provisions of this Convention applicable to other land territory.’” (9)


Since the conclusion of UNCLOS III, disagreements and confrontations between Greece and Turkey over the continental shelf region in the Aegean Sea have continued. Several times the continental shelf issue has brought the two countries to the brink of war.

When Greece announced in 1987 that it planned to begin drilling for oil in the waters off the island of Thassos, Turkey responded that it was going to send Sizmile I out to conduct oil exploration. Ankara argued that the Greek action would be a violation of the 1976 Bern Agreement, which had called for a moratorium on unilateral exploration and exploitation in the contested area until an understanding could be reached on the issue. Greece replied that the agreement had been made inoperative by events. (10)

Noncooperation over the continental shelf has continued throughout the 1990s. The Turkish insistence on a demarcation line for the continental shelf midway between the Greek and Turkish mainlands intensifies Greek fears that there would be a direct threat to the sovereignty of the islands lying to the east of the line. (11) The Greek government has declared that these islands form a political continuum with the Greek mainland, and with increased regional penetration, Turkey would be provided with a means for interfering with Greece’s internal sea and air communications. (12) Greece continues to cite the invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and the formation of Turkey’s Army of the Aegean, whose numbers approach those of the entire Greek army, as reasons for its apprehension. In January 1996, the Greek and Turkish navies dispatched warships when controversy over the sovereignty of the island of Imia nearly led to war between the two countries.

Despite the Greek claims, Turkey continues to argue today that the proclaimed sovereign rights for Greece in the continental shelf would make the Aegean a Greek Lake, and that the international principle of “right of innocent passage” is an inadequate guarantee for the safety of all Turkish ships passing through Greek waters. (13)


The lingering dispute over the continental shelf has created environmental concerns in the Aegean Sea. The lack of cooperation between the Greek and Turkish governments on territorial issues has spilled over into the environmental area, where bilateral agreements on pollution control and the exploitation of resources are severely needed. Commenting on Greek--Turkish relations, government spokesman Dimitris Reppas explained, for “understanding and cooperation to be achieved, all parties concerned must act in the same spirit of good will and good faith, so that they take the steps necessary for progress in the desired direction.” (14)

Disagreements between Greece and Turkey over control of the continental shelf will ultimately lead to increased problems of illegal exploitation, where there could be serious depletion of natural resources. (15) Turkey has already conducted oil exploration in the continental shelf region without the consent of Greece. While Greece routinely drills for oil without informing Turkey. Additionally, both Greek and Turkish fisherman take advantage the loose regulations in the Aegean Sea, creating concerns over the depletion of available seafood, exports that both countries rely upon to generate revenues for their respective economies. This has occurred despite Greece’s claims that most of the fish stocks and other living resources in the Aegean belong to Greece.

Another environmental issue is the rise in the pollution levels in the Aegean. The territorial dispute has created avenues for illegal dumping by both countries, where security and military concerns have taken precedent over pollution control. Pollution levels have also been negatively affected by the increased shipping traffic, where Turkey has especially been aggressive in maintaining its presence in the Aegean by directing its commercial transport through the Aegean Sea instead of using alternate routes. Further, both countries have also expanded the use of their navies in the Aegean, creating the potential for military action that would threaten the environment of the Aegean and the habitat that the continental shelf provides.


A resolution to the continental shelf dispute could prove extremely difficult to achieve. The characterization of the problem as essentially legal by Greece but political by Turkey leads to differing conclusions as to the correct forum in which to discuss the issue. (16) If a particular method is chosen for attempting resolution, one party is likely to believe itself disadvantaged from the outset and would therefore be less than fully committed to the process. (17)

The Greek government’s ratification of the 1995 Law of the Sea Convention, which Turkey declined to sign, granted it the right to extend its territorial seas in the Aegean from six miles to twelve. Should the Turkish military react to a Greek extension of its territorial waters, it has been proposed that the United Nations suspend all jurisdiction claims in the Aegean Sea, including the continental shelf, and employ an international naval peacekeeping force. (18) Another recommendation is to create a demarcation line through the Aegean Sea, drawn along the midpoint of two median lines, one between the Greek and Turkish coasts without regard to the Greek islands, and one between the islands’ baseline and that of the Turkish coast. (19)

3. Duration: Years: (In Progress)

The dispute between Greece and Turkey over the continental shelf officially dates back to November 1973 and therefore has lasted 24years. However, it should be noted that while the Greeks appeared in the Aegean Sea with clearcut ethnological traits from 2000 B.C., the Turks appeared in the Aegean relatively late with their first conquest of an Aegean island taking place in 1456. (20)

4. Location

a. Continent: Europe

b. Region: Aegean Sea, Western Europe

c. States: Greece and Turkey

5. Actors: Greece and Turkey

II. Environment

6. Type of Environmental Problem: Territory

The territorial dispute has primarily created source problems that reflect a depletion of natural resources (oil and other minerals), species (fish and other ocean species) and habitat (degradation of the continental shelf).

A primary sink problem created by the dispute is pollution. The lack of cooperation between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean has caused pollution to be generated from the illegal dumping of waste materials by both Greek and Turkish industries and further, by the increasing shipping traffic.

7. Type of Habitat: Ocean

8. Act and Harm Sites:

Site of Act Site of Harm Example
Greece Aegean Sea Greece and Turkey natural resource depletion and increased pollution levels in the continental shelf region of the Aegean Sea

III. Conflict

9. Type of Conflict: Interstate

10. Level of Conflict: War Threat

11. Fatality Level: None

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics: Direct (Resources)

There is a direct relationship between the environment and the conflict in the continental shelf dispute. A country's juristiction over the continenatl shelf region in the Aegean Sea creates a positive effect on a country's access to natural resources. This, in turn, creates a positive effect on that country's economy. However, a better economy produces a negative effect on the resources of the continental shelf region. A country's military is positively impacted by a more productive economy. Also, each country's military has a positive effect on the military of its adversary. Illegal acts of a country, in this case both Greece and Turkey, creates positive scenarios for its economy and military while producing negative consequences for the continental shelf region (i.e. depletion of resources and increased pollution levels).


13. Outcome of Dispute: In Progress

The dispute over the continental shelf has yet be resolved. (see "PROSPECTS FOR RESOLUTION" section under the "Description" heading)

14. Level of Strategic Interest: Bilateral

The strategic interest in the continental shelf dispute has implications for the Aegean Sea region. The countries of the Aegean Sea region would no doubt be impacted by a violent conflict between Greece and Turkey. These countries include Albania, Bulgaria and the Balklans states. Also, the European Union, with both Greece and Turkey as member states, would be called upon to address any conflict. Further, a violent conflict would create UN Security Council resolutions and possibly a recomendation for an international peacekeeping force.

IV. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases

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16. Relevant Literature

"Greek Government Spokesman on Greek--Turkish Relations," Embassy of Greece, November 20, 1996.

Papacosmo, S. Victor, "More than Rocks: The Aegean's Discordant Legacy," Mediterranean Quarterly, 7:4, Fall 1996.

Schmitt, Michael N., Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Air Force, "Aegean Angst: The Greek Turkish Dispute," Naval War College Review,, XLIX:III, Summer 1996.

Sitilides, John, "Dividing the Aegean Sea: A Plan in Progress?" The Greek American, May 10, 1997.

"Tensions Riding High in the Aegean," Jane's Intelligence Review, March 1996.

"Threat in the Aegean," The Journalists' Union of the Athens Daily Newspapers, 1991.

Relevant Websites

Go to International Maritime Organization (IMO)


1. Lieutenant Colonel Michael N. Schmitt, U.S. Air Force, "Aegean Angst: The Greek Turkish Dispute," Naval War College Review,, XLIX:III, Summer 1996, 52.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.,58.

7. Ibid.

8. "Threat in the Aegean," The Journalists' Union of the Athens Daily Newspapers, 1991, 21.

9. Schmitt, 58.

10. Ibid.

11. S. Victor Papacosma, "More than Rocks: The Aegean's Discordant Legacy," Mediterranean Quarterly, 7:4, Fall 1996, 86.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. "Greek Government Spokesman on Greek--Turkish Relations," Embassy of Greece, November 20, 1996, 1.

15. "Tensions Riding High in the Aegean," Jane's Intelligence Review, March 1996, 121.

16. Schmitt, 57.

17. Ibid.

18. John Sitilides, "Dividing the Aegean Sea: A Plan in Progress?" The Greek American, May 10, 1997, 13.

19. Ibid., 12.

20. "Threat in the Aegean," 10-11.