Maritime Law is one of the trickiest legal areas internationally. Whether you are participating in a recreational boating excursion on the Delaware River in the United States, aboard a cruise visiting several countries, or shipping products from China to California, the location of an accident or a crime could determine who is enforcing the law. In the United States, the Coast Guard is the main source of maritime law enforcement – but internationally, maritime law enforcement varies per situation.

The United States Coast Guard

maritime lawMaritime Law enforcement has fallen in the hands of the US Coast Guard since 1790. They are responsible for all United States waters and waters that fall under the jurisdiction of the United States as well as controlling US borders. The Coast Guard is also able to assist in the enforcement of International agreements.

In order to protect the United States waters and the civilians in the US as well as our allies, the USCG reserves the right to:

  • Board any vessel subject to US Jurisdiction
  • Inspect the vessel
  • Search the vessel
  • Inquire information about the vessel, the workers, the destination, and the home port of the vessel
  • Arrest any person(s) aboard the vessel

During times when the United States Coast Guard exercises these rights, the main concern is to stop international drug trafficking, illegal immigration, fisheries laws, and to protect United States civilians from any terroristic threats.

The United States Coast Guard also conducts rescue missions when a recreational boating, shipping, or other accident occurs in United States waters. The Coast Guard also assists in the investigation of shipping accidents, oil spills, and other facets of maritime activity.

Who Enforces Maritime Law Outside of US Waters

International maritime law enforcement is a little bit more complicated than the enforcement of laws on domestic waters and aboard domestic vessels. According to the United States Coast Guard’s explanation of Maritime Force, International Law can apply when an incident falls under three basic international principles.

  • A flag state is the primary enforcer of regulations, safety, and operations of vessels “flying its flag.”
  • Every nation is allowed to navigate on the high seas as it pertains to the Freedom of the High Seas
  • A vessel sailing in water’s outside of its flag state’s jurisdiction is subject to the laws of both the coastal state and the flag state

A flag state is the state or country that a vessel originates from and controls waters around the state of country. The flag state is responsible for inspecting and filing certificates that state the vessel was checked for all SOLAS regulations and is approved to set sail. If a ship fails inspection or is sailing without being properly inspected and approved, the flag state is responsible for setting the punishments and may also be held accountable if they failed to inspect, certify, and issue safety and pollution prevention documentation to the captain.

Under the Freedom of the High Seas, every nation has the right to navigate on the high seas without discrimination. To enforce this right, a nation is not allowed to assert “jurisdiction over foreign vessels on the high seas.” However, if a vessel is sailing outside of its flag state’s waters, the vessel is then subject to both coastal state and flag state jurisdictions – with the flag state taking primary jurisdiction dependent on the circumstances.

Navigating maritime law can often be confusing – and if you have fallen victim to a maritime crime, you should immediately contact an expert. The River Lawyers of Moschetta Law in Pittsburgh, PA are experienced on many levels of maritime law. Our focus practice areas include the Defense Base Act, The Jones Act, and the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. Contact us today for help navigating the waters of Maritime Law.