Who Enforces Maritime Law?

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After suffering a personal injury on the open seas, whether due to a workplace injury aboard a vessel, an assault carried out by a passenger or crewmember, a slip and fall, food poisoning, an accident during an onshore excursion, or any number of possible accidents or injuries, trying to make sense of maritime law simply adds to the complexities of an already difficult situation. While trying to sort out the first steps of an incident — while still aboard the vessel — it can quickly feel overwhelming as you start to realize that you may not even know what legal authorities are available to provide you with support. There is no 911 to call in international waters, no EMTs waiting to be dispatched to your emergency, so who can you count on to enforce your rights after a personal injury?

Broadly speaking, enforcement of maritime laws is left up to the authorities in the location where the incident occurred.  But at the same time, the flag state of the vessel also has jurisdiction to investigate the incident.  And to further complicate the issues, any crime involving a U.S. citizen while aboard a cruise ship, regardless of location worldwide, gives the FBI jurisdiction over the case as well. Consequently, there is not necessarily a simple answer to the question of who enforces maritime law.  


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Understanding Maritime Law Jurisdiction

While, yes, maritime law is complicated and can be confusing to the uninitiated, the reality is that there are set guidelines, jurisdictions, and pathways towards justice no matter how complex the situation may seem at first glance.  

Below are some general points regarding maritime law jurisdiction and enforcement. To get specific advice for your matter, contact a maritime attorney.

U.S. Waters Are Patrolled By the United States Coast Guard

In U.S. waters, the United States Coast Guard is typically charged with enforcing maritime law including the right to board any vessel in U.S. jurisdictions, inspect any vessel, search any vessel, make inquiries about the vessel including the crew and passenger lists, travel course, the vessel’s homeport and destination, and more, as well as the right to make arrests on the vessel.


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In the event of an accident in U.S. waters, the Coast Guard is responsible for rescue operations, as well. Whether the accident involves a recreational craft, commercial vessel, or any other circumstances, they will carry out the rescue operation with specialized teams of personnel.

Enforcement on International Waters Depends on A Number of Factors

Freedom of the Seas is the guiding international law principle regarding the freedom to navigate international waters and is laid out in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, specifically Article 87(1).

In it, this doctrine states that “The high seas are open to all States, whether coastal or land-locked. Freedom of the high seas is exercised under the conditions laid down by this Convention and by other rules of international law.” This includes freedoms of navigation, overflight, laying submarine cables and pipelines and the freedom to construct artificial islands (subject to part VI of the doctrine), the freedom of fishing (subject to conditions in Section 2), and the freeform of scientific research (subject to parts VI and XIII).

In terms of enforcement of maritime law on international waters, there is typically a hierarchy of enforcement rights, starting with the “flag state” the vessel is flying under, followed by the nearest coastal country, as well as other factors that may be outlined in the UN Conventions about international jurisdiction over specific areas of international waters.


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To learn more about maritime jurisdiction, contact a maritime attorney. Maritime law is a complicated body of laws that requires a specific understanding. 



Michael Winkleman

Michael knew he was destined for the legal profession, and particularly for the high-pressure life of a litigator. “I was meant to be a trial lawyer. I love being in the courtroom and thrive in high-pressure situations.”

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