Canadian and U.S. government experts met quietly in Ottawa last week to begin trying to resolve a long-standing boundary dispute in the Beaufort Sea, a Canadian diplomat revealed Monday.
News of the surprise talks was disclosed during a briefing by Canadian and U.S. officials on a bi-national seabed mapping mission to be conducted next month in the Beaufort region.
This summer's joint Canada-U.S. survey, the third consecutive year in which researchers from the two countries have agreed to collaborate on mapping the Beaufort sea floor, will also include a sonar probe of the contested area itself for the first time.
The Ottawa talks on the Beaufort controversy, held July 22, followed a pledge earlier this year by Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon that Canada intends to actively pursue an agreement with the U.S. over where the maritime boundary should be drawn in an unresolved, Lake Ontario-sized section of the Arctic Ocean north of the Yukon-Alaska border.
Allison Saunders, deputy director of the continental shelf division at the Department of Foreign Affairs, said the gathered specialists in international law, hydrography and other fields had a productive discussion on the technical aspect related to the boundary and that a second meeting has been scheduled to take place in Washington next year.
Beginning Aug. 2, scientists aboard the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy and the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent will co-operate in a 42-day mission aimed at generating seabed data across a wide swath of the southern, central and northern Beaufort Sea.
The information is intended to help the two countries prepare their respective claims under a UN treaty for extended authority over submerged territory as well as potential petroleum deposits and other seabed resources.
Canada's submission to the UN agency on continental shelves is due in 2013.
Until now, the two countries have avoided conducting survey work in the disputed zone in the southern Beaufort.
But the federal scientist leading Canada's offshore mapping mission, Natural Resources Canada geologist Jacob Verhoef, said Monday that mapping within the contested area has become necessary to complete each country's broader claims for undersea territory beyond the Beaufort's southern waters.
To secure extensions to their authority over extended stretches of undersea territory, countries must prove that clear geological connections exist between the continental mainland and adjacent stretches of sea floor.
Historically, the key area of dispute was a triangle-shaped, 21,500-sq.-km section of the Beaufort Sea close to the Yukon-Alaska shore. But the joint Canada-U.S. seabed surveys in 2008 and 2009 showed each country's claims could extend much farther toward the North Pole than previously imagined, doubling or even tripling the ultimate size of the dispute zone once continental shelf submissions are made.
The two countries have disagreed since the 1970s over where to draw the ocean border. It's a conflict that flares whenever fisheries management, oil-and-gas exploration or other resource development issues arise in the region.
Canada's position is based on an 1825 treaty between Russian and Britain that was transferred to the U.S. and Canada when the two countries acquired Alaska and the Yukon respectively in the latter half of the 19th century.
That treaty suggests the Beaufort Sea maritime boundary is an extension of the arrow-straight land border between Yukon and Alaska, which follows the 141st meridian.
The U.S. argues the offshore boundary is defined by an "equidistance" principle: the demarcation line at any point is drawn halfway between each country's nearest stretch of coastline.
But because the two countries are working to expand their seabed domains in the central and northern Beaufort — also potential petroleum targets — an area much larger than the traditional dispute zone is coming into play.
Under the U.S. formula for determining the maritime boundary, the looming presence of Canada's Banks Island on the Beaufort's eastern side radically alters where the border between the two countries would be drawn in areas farther out to sea.
According to the U.S. position, Alaska's northward-sloping coastline means the sea's southern maritime boundary veers slightly eastward of the Yukon-Alaska land boundary, giving the U.S. a greater amount of marine jurisdiction.
But the overlap in the northerly expanse of the Beaufort would be much larger and reversed, with the boundary under the U.S. formula swinging far to the west because of Banks Island, giving Canada a greater share of the potentially resource-rich seabed.
Meanwhile, Canada's longitude-line formula for determining the boundary would give the U.S. more seabed territory in the outer Beaufort.
Canada also recently began talks with Denmark to try to resolve an offshore territorial dispute in the eastern Arctic Ocean.
In March, Canwest News Service revealed that the two countries were now actively working to end a decades-old disagreement over a 200-square-kilometre section of the Lincoln Sea, north of Canada's Ellesmere Island and Danish-controlled Greenland.