The Salish Sea Boundary Straits: 'Historic Internal Waters' or Territorial Seas?

83 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2016 Last revised: 5 Oct 2016

See all articles by Craig H. Allen

Craig H. Allen

University of Washington - School of Law; UW Arctic Law and Policy Institute

Date Written: August 29, 2016


The Salish Sea Boundary Straits between the United States and Canada are a vital waterway connecting commercial and military ports in Washington State and British Columbia with the Pacific Ocean. Although the international boundary line in the waters has been authoritatively established, questions persist regarding the classification under the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) of the waters on either side of the international boundary as either internal waters or territorial seas. Similar questions on historic waters claims arise in the South China Sea and the Arctic Northwest Passage. This article examines the available evidence that might support a U.S. claim to historic title in the waters and concludes that it falls short of the international law standard. Accordingly, the boundary straits are properly classified as territorial seas and foreign vessels have a right of innocent passage in those waters.

Keywords: Salish Sea, Law of the Sea, UNCLOS, historic waters, historic bays, territorial sea, internal waters, international straits, innocent passage

JEL Classification: K 33, L 91, K 23

Suggested Citation

Allen, Craig H., The Salish Sea Boundary Straits: 'Historic Internal Waters' or Territorial Seas? (August 29, 2016). Available at SSRN: or

Craig H. Allen (Contact Author)

University of Washington - School of Law ( email )

William H. Gates Hall
Box 353020
Seattle, WA 98105-3020
United States
202-616-8302 (Phone)
202-616-4519 (Fax)


UW Arctic Law and Policy Institute ( email )

Campus Box 353020
Seattle, WA 98195-3020
United States

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