Do you remember that time a couple of summers ago when Newfoundland almost started a war between Turkey and Greece?

No? I thought not. Curiously, although some Canadian media covered the story, they remained blissfully unaware of their country’s role in the incident.

It all revolved around that favourite old chestnut of the maritime nations: the United Nations Law of the Sea. More particularly, it centred on the ownership of seabed mineral rights.

As Newfoundlanders are all too aware, a nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) extends out to 200 nautical miles from its coastline. The EEZ gives that country sole access to the natural resources contained within.

It appears straightforward, but the international overlap of EEZs is often substantial and complex. When you add the debate over who owns the continental shelf (or, indeed, what the continental shelf even is) into the mix, there’s enormous scope for disagreement.

An archipelago to argue over

In the eastern Mediterranean, the question of geographical claims is debated particularly vigorously by Greece and Turkey. The Aegean Sea is the original archipelago, with something like 1,400 islands to argue over.

Canada makes no claims of local sovereignty over there of course. Where it does get involved is in trying to understand why the islands are there, carrying out scientific research into the geological evolution of the region.

That sounds like it ought to be fairly uncontroversial, but for various reasons it isn’t.

A not-quite-as-old lost sea

The Mediterranean Sea is the western remnant of a once-enormous ocean, the Tethys, which has been slowly eaten up by the tectonic convergence of Europe, Africa and Asia.

This three-way continental collision zone is extremely complicated, with some parts being forced down beneath the seabed and others being thrust up into mountains. This dynamic geology means the area is prone to some very significant earthquakes.

Such regions can also be the source of significant mineral wealth. An ancient example can be found in the Baie Verte Peninsula – as I discussed in my last column – and modern-day case studies are used to comprehend the old lost seas.

From Terra Nova to the Mediterranean

In July 2010, the Turkish research vessel Piri Reis set out from Izmir to conduct seismic surveys of the seabed near the Greek island of Rhodes. On board was a Memorial University research team.

Led by professors Jeremy Hall and Ali Aksu, the group has been carrying out studies of the region for many years. One of its key aims is to try and understand how the different sections of crust are interacting and better comprehend the distribution of faults and fractures.

The Greeks, however, took particular umbrage at the Piri Reis’ presence, suggesting that it was illegally collecting data on oil and gas, and sent in a coastguard boat to investigate.

In questions to the European Parliament, Greek politicians noted that Turkey does not recognize either the Law of the Sea or EEZs and that they were right to be suspicious. Turkey responded by stating that it was carrying out the research for ‘humanitarian‘ purposes.

A history of tension

A couple of decades earlier, in a similar scenario, the Greek government had allegedly threatened to sink the very same Turkish research boat. A number of other incidents had occurred over subsequent years.

Why 2010 proved a flashpoint is unclear, but thankfully the situation did not escalate. The warship watched the Piri Reis from a distance but the research was allowed to continue. The MUN team came home safely.

For Newfoundlanders of an earlier generation the region provided a very different outcome, as they found themselves thrown into a conflict of a wholly different magnitude. That, however, is a story for another column.