It is also in conflict with the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, to which Britain is a signatory, that prevents exploitation of the region other than for scientific research.

'Theoretical' exploitation

But the foreign office spokeswoman said that because of the treaty, Britain's claim would be "theoretical" for the moment.

"It's incredibly unlikely that the Antarctic Treaty would ever be abolished," she told Reuters news agency.

"But in order to safeguard our interests for the future, we are submitting a claim."

Russia, Australia, France and Brazil are among those to have also made claims.

According to the spokeswoman, the four other claims would be for the Atlantic seabed territory around South Georgia and the Falkland Islands and also around Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, near the Bay of Biscay in the North Atlantic, as well as in the Hatton-Rockall basin off Scotland's coast.

May 13, 2009 marks a deadline for states to stake their claims in what experts describe as the last big carve-up of maritime territory in history.
Meanwhile, the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, agreed in 1991, designates Antarctica as a "natural reserve, devoted to peace and science".
 
Opposition

The protocol bans any activity relating to Antarctic mineral resources except for scientific research until 2048 when changes to the agreement can be made by unanimous agreement of all parties to the Antarctic Treaty.

Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace, told Al Jazeera that no one should be staking a claim for mineral exploitation in Antarctica, particularly oil and gas.

Parr said: "Actually staking a claim, makes governments and companies think of when to do it, how to do it, how soon they can get there, and ultimately brings forward the date when exploitation can begin."

Britain has reportedly lodged one joint claim with France, Spain and Ireland for extended territorial rights in the Bay of Biscay, and hoped to agree on joint submissions for other regions too.

The claims are based on extending existing territorial rights beyond the current 200 mile limits.

"We are in discussions with Iceland, Ireland and Denmark over the Hatton-Rockall area," the spokeswoman said.