Most people understand that when you are in your fishing boat on a lake fishing in the Midwest of America, you are still ‘in’ America. You still have to follow all the rules. You are still fully within the jurisdiction of the United States and you are entitled to all the benefits and drawbacks of living under the government of the United States. What happens when you cross the border into Canada? You have to bring a passport and show your ID, the border guards have to check to see if you are who you say you are, and suddenly all of the laws change. Nothing is the same anymore, from the healthcare system to the official Head of State, to the sales taxes you pay when you stop at a gas station, in some places you might even need to exchange your paper currency for a new kind.
But what about when you take that fishing boat and bring it to the coast, turn the motor on, and start driving out towards the horizon? What happens the further away from the land you get? Well as it turns out, according to International Law the answer is the same in every country.
When you first get in your boat and start driving you see an island in front of you, this means you are in the Internal Waters of the coastal state. The Internal Waters line is placed as the farthest out the ground goes during a low tide, since there is an island in front of you, all of the waters behind that island, nearer to the coast are internal to the coastal state and treated as their sovereign territory, because it is farther back then the farthest point their coastline reaches during low tide. States get to create their map defining the farthest points their territory stretches when at low tide, no international organization is in charge of this process. This line will be called the ‘Baseline’ from here on out and is used to define all other zones past this point.
As you pass this island and keep going in your boat, you enter the Territorial Sea of the coastal state. For the next 12 nautical miles, the coastal state claims sovereignty over the ocean which falls within this boundary. Customs can be enforced on any ship which enters these waters, and all laws, regulations, and policies of the coastal state must be obeyed here. Any commercial activity which takes place within this zone is taxable by the coastal state.
After you have moved more than 12 nautical miles out, you enter the Contiguous Zone. The Contiguous Zone is an extension of the Territorial Sea, the coastal state doesn’t have legitimate claims to force ships passing through to pay taxes or follow most of their laws, but they have the right to take action against vessels that are infringing on their customs, fiscal, immigration, or sanitary laws. They can also take military action against entities they deem to ‘threaten their national security’ which can be defined by the coastal state as whatever they want. The Contiguous Zone doesn’t automatically exist for all coastal states, it is something they have to opt into by declaring it to the international community, possibly to an international body like the United Nations.
After you have gone 24 nautical miles (about 27.6 regular miles) away from the baseline, then you have left both the Territorial Sea, and the Contiguous Zone, but the coastal state can still exercise influence on ships passing through this area more indirectly. Out to 200 nautical miles away from the baseline is the Exclusive Economic Zone. This massive zone extends state control so far over the horizon of the seas, that despite the world being 71% covered by ocean, only 43% is unclaimed by any nation-state. Meaning that while 29% of the earth is made of land (including Antarctica) a further 27% of the surface is claimed, though not inhabited by anyone.
For a state to claim an EEZ around any island or piece of land, it must first have permanent inhabitants. So even if they plant a flag on a rock sticking out of the ocean 200 miles away to double their territorial claim, they must have people living on that rock full time for it to count as part of their country.
Exclusive Economic Zones, as the name implies, do not mean that a state gets to exert control by enforcing its laws and regulations on any ship within this zone, instead, it only gives them a claim to own all natural resources within the zone. So any fish caught within this zone, technically belong to the host nation 200 miles away, similarly any metals found on the ocean floor, or oil found under the ocean floor, also belongs to the host nation. That being said, economic activity which takes place aboard a ship, is not a natural resource under their control, and thus cannot be taxed or regulated by such a state in any way. In addition, when defining the EEZ the UN says ‘The coastal state cannot prohibit passage or loitering above, on, or under the surface of the sea that complies with the laws and regulations adopted by the coastal State following the provisions of the UN Convention’. This means that while a state may claim to own the resources within an EEZ, it can’t control the space itself, and vessels have the right to pass through or stay for as long as they want while remaining compliant with international law.
The EEZs of the various nations (along with the waters outside of the EEZs which are completely free in terms of natural resources and belong to no one), are collectively called ‘International Waters’. And while these waters may be international, they are still not completely free of restrictions, including restrictions that would affect seasteading. When a vessel is in International Waters, it must be flagged with the flag of a host nation, and must therefore obey all of the host nation’s laws. Conventionally, ships are supposed to flag themselves with the flag of their country of origin, but in practice, something called ‘Flags of Convenience’ are often used. These are the flags of nations that give financial and regulatory incentives to ships and shipping companies to use their flag instead of that of another nation, in exchange for an annual fee of a few thousand dollars. In practice these flags will usually not only protect the vessel from being boarded by hostile passing ships but are also even lower regulation than advertised since the host nation of the flag being flown usually doesn’t have the logistical ability to check and see what kinds of activities are happening aboard all of these foreign ships and whether they are complying with the host nation’s laws. Panama is the most common flag of convenience, while Liberia also occupies a spot near the top. The Seasteading Institute last year wrote a paper on the idea of creating a flag specifically for seasteading. So while every ship is forced to bear a flag of an established state, it doesn’t have to be their own and some options are always present, with more possibly coming in the future.
Whatever the regulatory future may hold, the case is still clear, that state claims extend far beyond the land and far beyond what you can see with your eyes from the shore. You simply won’t be able to drive your fishing boat far enough to become completely independent, at least not if any other ships come by and see it without a flag. So for the time being, living with some shadow of foreign control is the norm everywhere in the world, and for the foreseeable future, things are going to stay that way.