The answer to the question and title of this piece is quite simply: nothing. Nothing about Kolbeinsy is overly important. That’s it, this is the end of the article you can click off and go on with your day… But it used to be important, and the story of the island serves as a fun opener to the often dull yet vitally important world of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), the ongoing debates around them and how climate change may change how international organisations such as the UN set out EEZs.
Kolbeinsy is a tiny little island called an islet. An islet for the geographically inclined among you is usually an unnamed lump of rock poking out above the sea, unable to support human habitation and having little to no vegetation.
Kolbeinsy lies in the Greenland sea 105 km off the coast of Iceland. First measured and presumably first discovered in 1616, it was 700m in length and 300m in width. In 2021, due to mass amounts of sea erosion, it is 14.5m long and 20m wide; it is expected to have completely succumbed to the sea in the coming years.
Before I continue with this article, I am going to take a moment to explain what EEZs are. Exclusive Economic Zones are a concept that was developed in 1982 during the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea. The ruling, which all UN countries signed states that countries control the sea up to 370 Km from their respective coastlines, exercising sovereign control and exclusive fishing rights which can be vitally important in terms of military presence and also feeding their respective countries. In practice they are far more complex, but the intricacies are unnecessary for the purposes of this article. Before EEZs, a country’s territory would extend 5.6 km off the coast, about the range of a cannon shot. It was extended to 22 Km in modern times, and by 1945, with the Truman proclamation, the US extended theirs to 370 Km. Until the 1982 UN Conference, exclusive sea rights were a bit of a wild west.
So why was Kolbeinsey important? In 1952 Iceland took advantage of the wild west that was maritime jurisdiction and used the island as a baseline mark for exclusive fishing rights and in 1975 declared a 370km EEZ. This annoyed Greenland because it gave Iceland control of 9,400 Km2 of sea that would otherwise be theirs. Which, to add context to, is just bigger than the combined area of Nofolk and Suffolk. In 1997 a joint agreement between Iceland, Denmark and Greenland settled the EEZs of the countries once and for all. This was worked out outside of the UN ruling, as the 1982 Conference on EEZs states that any land mass described as a rock (rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own) are exempt from EEZs.
A report published in 2006 states that Kolbeinsey is no longer of importance but should really be kept just in case of any new developments. But would it be used again to help set Icelandic EEZ? it hasn’t been important for the best part of 30 years. If it were to fall into the sea or where something in the agreement was to change, the matter would likely be resolved in a similar fashion to how it was in the 1990s; deals and backroom conversions between governments. However, it would take an expert in maritime law to say for certain.
This isn’t the only time Iceland has been embroiled in territorial disputes. A fishing rights dispute starting in the 1950’s, the modern Cod wars as dubbed by the press, began against the UK. Although such disputes had been occurring all the way back to the 15th Century. There were three major disputes, with each being resolved in favour of Iceland. Since the UN Conference in 1982 and the introduction of set EEZs as international standard, there have been no further disputes.
Kolbeinsy isn’t the only island that has been centre stage for maritime disputes. A more recent example is that of the creatively named Canada-France Maritime boundary case of 1992. It was decided by an arbitral tribunal (which is a bit like a court, but for countries), voting in favour of France. It was over the sea surrounding a group of islands called Saint Pierre and Miquelon, which, although autonomous, are owned by the French. The ruling resulted in a French EEZ around the islands within Canada’s EEZ with a little strip running out into international waters. Canada was not best pleased with the ruling, so in 1996 they extended their EEZ using an island called Sable Island, a 300 km strip of land; creating a little mushroom-shaped strip of French EEZ in Canadas.
There are a litany of cases such as this creating-human made geographical oddities. However, the crisis which is climate change, is threatening this whole system. A report last year by Reuters looks at the warning laid out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that sea levels could rise by 1m by the end of the century. Increased sea levels coupled by increasing storms as a result of climate change would cause low lying islands, especially the Pacific nations; devastating the islands so much so that their status would be downgraded to rocks. Which as I detailed earlier, would mean these island nations would lose masses of EEZs. Due to this there is a mad rush from these nations to lock in EEZ rights hoping that the reduction of land can’t be won’t cause their EZZs to be changed or challenged after they fall to the sea. The fear from these small islands is that if claimed islands disappear due to climate change, bigger nations may ignore EEZs even if they are still held up by the UN and encroach on these small islands fishing waters. Furthermore, climate change could wipe out up to 60% of marine life by the end of the century, according to a report by the World Economic Forum, further increasing the desperation to secure as much EEZ as possible, the advantage very much on the side of the bigger nations.
EEzs while to most people are boring, old dusty legal agreements made in courtrooms and meeting rooms by people in grey suits surrounded by pages of overly complex documents. Most people don’t know about or fully understand EEZs and what they do. Yet they shape the destinies of not only nations but also the citizens in them, from individual access to fish but also the economic future of a nation. To most people, a seemingly invisible force that shapes in major inconceivable ways in secret.