Seaward Limit of Laws

 

Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships Antarctic Conservation Act Antiquities Act of 1906 Assault on Fisheries Observer Clean Water Act
Coastal Zone Management Act Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 Deep Seabed Hard Mineral Resources Act (DSHMRA) Deepwater Port Act of 1974 The Fur Seal Act of 1966
Endangered Species Act Historic Sites, Buildings, and Antiquities Act 
(HSA) of 1935
Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act Marine Mammal Protection Act Migratory Bird Treaty Act
National Environmental Policy Act National Historic Preservation Act National Marine Sanctuaries Act Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act of 1990
Ocean Dumping Act Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion Act of 1980 Oil Pollution Act
of 1990
Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 Plunder Statue
Ports and Waterways Safety Act of 1972 Recreational Vessels Act Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 Whaling Convention Act of 1949  

 

Laws enacted by Congress are presumed to apply within the territory of the United States (including within either a 3- or 12-nautical mile territorial sea), unless otherwise explicitly provided. In 2010, the Supreme Court confirmed the "longstanding principle of American law ‘that legislation of Congress, unless a contrary intent appears, is meant to apply only within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States’" (Morrison v. National Australia Bank, Ltd., 130 S.Ct. 2869, 2877 (2010)).

The Court stated, "This principle represents a canon of construction, or a presumption about a statute’s meaning, rather than a limit upon Congress’s power to legislate . . . . It rests on the perception that Congress ordinarily legislates with respect to domestic, not foreign matters . . . . Thus, ‘unless there is the affirmative intention of the Congress clearly expressed’ to give a statute extraterritorial effect, ‘we must presume it is primarily concerned with domestic conditions’ . . . . The canon or presumption applies regardless of whether there is a risk of conflict between the American statute and a foreign law . . . . When a statute gives no clear indication of an extraterritorial application, it has none." (Id. at 2877-78).

NOAA administers a number of laws that, as a matter of law or policy, it interprets as applying beyond the territory of the United States. In addition, there are laws of interest to NOAA that have been interpreted to apply beyond the territory of the United States.


Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS), 33 U.S.C. §§ 1905-1915

The Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS) implements the 1973 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships and the Protocol of 1978 Relating to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, also known as MARPOL 73/78 (MARPOL). Ships of U.S. registry or operated under the authority of the U.S. excluding warships, ships under 400 tons, and other minor exceptions, are subject to the Act’s discharge provisions worldwide. In regards to foreign-flagged ships, there are different areas of applicability depending on the MARPOL pollution discharge category involved. (33 U.S.C. § 1902).

To date, the Second, Third, and Fifth U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal, as well as the U.S. district courts in the First and Eleventh Circuits, have held that APPS applies to foreign-flagged vessels within U.S. jurisdictional waters, which include its ports or terminals, internal waters, territorial sea, and the exclusive economic zone. See Nicholas H. Berg, Bringing It All Back Home: The Fifth and Second Circuits Allow Domestic Prosecutions for Oil Record Book Violations on Foreign-Flagged Vessels, 34 Tul. Mar. L.J. 253, 257 (2009). Although the actual discharge of illegal pollution may occur outside of U.S. jurisdiction, the failure to maintain an Oil Record Book detailing the discharge that takes place within the jurisdictional waters of the United States may also be a violation. If a ship enters United States waters without maintaining an Oil Record Book, or knowingly provides false information pertaining to their oil discharges as outlined in MARPOL, the ship may be in violation of APPS.

Additional reference information: Some of these links are to external sites.


Anarctic Conservation Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 2401-2413

The Antarctic Conservation Act, enacted in 1978, provides for the conservation and protection of the Antarctic resources consistent with the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, signed October 4, 1991. The Act applies to the natural and cultural resources associated with the land, ice shelves and water south of the 60 deg. latitude. (16 U.S.C § 2402). The Act provides a list of 13 activities that are prohibited to protect Antarctica and an additional 5 activities that are prohibited unless authorized by a permit issued by the National Science Foundation. (16 U.S.C. § 2403-2404). Applications for permits that undertake actions with respect to the Endangered Species Act of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act require consultation with the Department of Commerce or Interior. The obligations under the Protocol for environment impact assessments are to be carried out by applying NEPA including tourism and other non-governmental activities which are subject to regulations promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Violations of the Act are punishable in the form of both civil and criminal charges with fines up to $10,000 per day and up to a year in prison. (16 U.S.C §§ 2407-2408).

Additional reference information: Some of these links are to external sites.


Antiquities Act of 1906, 16 U.S.C. §§ 431-433

The Antiquities Act of 1906 is the first United States statute to authorize general protection of natural and cultural heritage. The Act grants the President authority to establish national monuments on lands "owned or controlled by the United States" that contain objects or areas of historic or scientific interest. Presidential designation of land as a national monument can limit land uses. In particular, development or recreation may be regulated or prohibited to protect the objects or areas listed in the Presidential proclamation establishing the national monument.

The Act has been construed to apply in the marine environment to the outer limit of the exclusive economic zone (OLC Opinion Sept. 2000). The Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel issued an Opinion dated September 15, 2000 which provides that the President "may use his authority under the Antiquities Act to establish a national monument in the exclusive economic zone to protect marine resources." As noted in Alaska v. United States (2005), the Act also gives the President the power to reserve submerged lands for the purpose of protecting wildlife and nature, even lands to which rights, title, and interest may otherwise have been granted to states under the Submerged Lands Act (545 U.S. 75, 108). In Alaska v. United States, the National Monument in question, Glacier Bay, was established before Alaska became a state.

The Antiquities Act has been applied at least four times to create marine national monuments, all of which extend beyond the outer limit of the twelve nautical mile territorial sea. The four monuments — the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the Marianas Trench Marine National Monumentthe Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, and the Rose Atoll Marine National Monument — encompass almost 214,777,000 acres of marine environment. This is larger than the land areas of Texas and Florida combined. The Marianas Trench Marine National Monument covers only submerged lands around the trench itself and around twenty one undersea volcanos. The Monument also covers the waters and submerged lands around the three northernmost Mariana Islands.

Additional reference information: Some of these links are to external sites.


Light mantled sooty albatross and chick

Photo 74: Coast Guard at-sea boarding. 
(Coast Guard web site)

Assault on Fisheries Observer, 18 U.S. C. §§ 111, 114

U.S. District Courts have held that this federal statute is applicable to the assault on a fisheries observer on board a foreign vessel in the U.S. EEZ. SeeU.S. v. Jung Sik Lee, Case No. A86-132 (D. Alaska 1987).

Additional reference information: Some of these links are to external sites.


Clean Water Act (CWA), Also Known as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, 33 U.S.C. §§ 1251 et seq.

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA), also known as the Clean Water Act (CWA), contains several different seaward jurisdictional limits. The CWA operates primarily by regulating discharges of pollutants. The Act defines discharge of a pollutant to include the addition of pollutants to navigable waters from point sources and the addition of pollutants to waters of the contiguous zone or the ocean from any point source (aside from vessels and floating crafts)(33 U.S.C. § 1362(12)).

The CWA defines ‘"navigable waters" as "waters of the United States, including territorial seas," which are in turn defined to extend three nautical miles seaward. (33 U.S.C. § 1362(7)-(8)). Beyond the 3 nm limit, the jurisdiction of the Act also includes the "contiguous zone" which reaches 12 nautical miles seaward. (33 U.S.C. § 1362(9)). Since state power to enforce the Act only extends to the territorial sea, courts have held that only the Federal Government through the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may issue permits for discharges beyond the territorial sea, which include "all ocean waters." See Pac. Legal Found. v. Costle, 586 F.2d 650, 655-56 (9th Cir. 1978) (holding that beyond the three-mile limit of the territorial sea, only the EPA can issue NPDES permits).

The "ocean" is broadly defined by the Act as "any portion of the high seas beyond the contiguous zone." (33 U.S.C. § 1362(10)). While the jurisdiction implied by that statement seems to include the contiguous zone, high seas, and all waters beyond, the reach of the NPDES discharge permit issuance is effectively limited to the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). See Presidential Proclamation No. 5030, 48 Fed. Reg. 10,605 (Mar. 14, 1983).

Additional reference information: Some of these links are to external sites.


Coastal Zone Management Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 1451 et seq.

The Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA), enacted in 1972, encourages coastal states to develop and implement Coastal Zone Management Plans (CZMPs), with the aim of preserving, protecting, developing, and restoring the coastal zones and coastal resources. Most coastal states have federally approved CZMPs.

The term "coastal zone," as applied to coastal states, includes the coastal waters, the lands found in and under the coastal waters, and the adjacent shorelands (16 U.S.C. § 1453(1)). The coastal zone extends, in the Great Lakes, to the international boundary between the United States and Canada and, in other areas, to the outer limit of state title and ownership under the Submerged Lands Act (43 U.S.C. §§ 1301 et seq.), the Act of March 2, 1917 (48 U.S.C. § 709), the Covenant to Establish a Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in Political Union with the United States of America, as approved by the Act of March 24, 1976 (48 U.S.C. § § 1801 et seq.), or Section 1 of the Act of November 20, 1963 (48 U.S.C. § 1705) (16 U.S.C. § 1453). However, states’ coastal zones specifically excludes "lands the use of which is by law subject solely to the discretion of or which is held in trust by the Federal Government, its officers or agents."

U.S. jurisdiction over waters off its coasts extends to the seaward limit of its 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and to the outer limit of its continental shelf (Presidential Proclamation 5030 of March 10, 1983: Exclusive Economic Zone of the United States (48 Fed. Reg. 10605); Presidential Proclamation 2667 of September 28, 1945 (10 Fed. Reg. 12303). The CZMA contains a "federal consistency provision," that requires federal agency activities that have reasonably foreseeable effects on state coastal zones to be consistent to the maximum extent practicable with the enforceable policies of a coastal state’s federally approved coastal management program (16 U.S.C. § 1456).

Additional reference information: Some of these links are to external sites.


Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 9601-9675

U.S. Federal courts have ruled both ways on the extraterritorial application of CERCLA. The definition of "state" in CERCLA to which CERCLA’s provisions apply includes "possessions and territories of the United States." Similarly, the definition of "persons" includes "corporations" but does not clarify whether this term encompasses only domestic corporations or foreign corporations, as well.

Additional reference information: Some of these links are to external sites.


Deep Seabed Hard Mineral Resources Act (DSHMRA), 30 U.S.C. §§ 1401-1473 (2002)

The Deep Seabed Hard Mineral Resources Act (DSHMRA), which became law on June 28, 1980, establishes an interim framework for the orderly development of hard mineral resources of the deep seabed, pending agreement on an international regime. 30 U.S.C. § 1401(b); 30 U.S.C § 1441(3). DSHMRA applies to U.S. citizens and vessels, as well as foreign persons and vessels otherwise subject to U.S. jurisdiction, who engage in exploration for and commercial recovery of deep seabed hard mineral resources. 30 U.S.C. § 1402(a)(1). Under DSHMRA, "deep seabed" means the area seaward of the United States’ Continental Shelf, as defined under the 1958 Shelf Convention, 30 U.S.C § 1403(2), and seaward of the Continental Shelf or national resource jurisdiction of any other nation. 30 U.S.C. § 1403(4). Although the Act contains a disclaimer of extraterritorial jurisdiction, 30 U.S.C. § 1402(a)(2), it plainly regulates conduct of U.S. citizens and others subject to U.S. jurisdiction when they engage in exploration for and exploitation of deep seabed hard mineral resources in or under the seafloor beyond national jurisdiction. 30 U.S.C. § 1402(a)(1).

DSHMRA also extends Clean Water Act jurisdiction to any discharge of a pollutant from vessels and other floating craft engaged in commercial recovery or exploration under the Act. 30 U.S.C. § 1419(e). Thus, such vessels are subject to Clean Water Act regulation even when on the high seas. See, e.g., EPA, Issuance of Final General NPDES Permit for Portions of Deep Seabed Mining- Exploration Activities in the Pacific Ocean, 49 FR 39,442 (Oct. 5, 1984).

Additional reference information: Some of these links are to external sites.


Deepwater Port ACT of 1974, 33 U.S.C. §§ 1501–1524 (2006), amended by the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, 46 U.S.C. § 70101 et seq.

The Deepwater Port Act of 1974 (DWPA) was enacted to regulate the location, ownership, construction, and operation of deepwater ports involved in oil and natural gas operations beyond three nautical miles from the U.S. baseline. 33 U.S.C. § 1501(a)(1). These activities are regulated through a licensing system, which is overseen by the Secretary of Transportation through the Maritime Administration (MARAD) in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard. 33 C.F.R. § 148.3. The Secretary of Transportation is required to establish environmental review criteria for the location, construction, and operation of deepwater ports consistent with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). 33 U.S.C § 1505. The DWPA authorizes the NOAA Administrator to advise the Department of Transportation on the environmental review criteria for deepwater port applications, the site evaluation and preconstruction testing at potential locations, and the designation of "adjacent coastal state" status. 33 U.S.C. §§ 1505(a), 1508(a)(2).

A deepwater port is "any fixed or floating manmade structure other than a vessel," which is used as a terminal for natural gas operations or other uses consistent with the statute, and is located beyond State seaward limits (three nautical miles except in the Gulf of Mexico where it is nine nautical miles). 33 U.S.C. § 1502(9). Accordingly, U.S. jurisdiction under the DWPA begins three nautical miles from U.S. baseline (typically the mean low water mark). The DWPA does not specify a seaward jurisdictional limit but expressly includes ports on the outer continental shelf. 33 U.S.C. § 1501(a)(6); see also 13 U.S.C. § 1502(9)(a) (uses consistent with the Act’s purpose include "transportation of oil or natural gas from the United States outer continental shelf."); 33 U.S.C. § 1504(h)(3); 33 U.S.C. § 1520; 33 C.F.R. § 148.5; 49 C.F.R.§ 1.53(a)(3). The DWPA also references the high seas in that deepwater ports should not "interfere with international navigation or other reasonable uses of the high seas, as defined by treaty, convention, or customary international law." See see also S. REP. NO. 93–1217 at 7535 ("However, the freedom of all nations to make reasonable use of waters beyond territorial boundaries is recognized by the International Convention on the High Seas.").

Additional reference information: Some of these links are to external sites.


Endangered Species ACT (ESA), 16 U.S.C. §§ 1531-1544

Endangered Right whale and calf

Photo 87: Endangered Right whale and calf. (NOAA, Alaska Fisheries Science Center)

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) specifically prohibits takings on the high seas by persons and vessels that are subject to U.S. jurisdiction. NOAA applies the takings and permitting provisions of the ESA to U.S. citizens and U.S. vessels on the high seas, including in foreign EEZs.

Additional reference information: Some of these links are to external sites.


The Fur Seal act of 1966, 16 U.S.C. §§ 1151-1159

The Fur Seal Act of 1966, 16 U.S.C. §§ 1151–59 (2012), was enacted to implement the Interim Convention on Conservation of North Pacific Fur Seals (the “Fur Seal Convention”). Feb. 9, 1957, 8 U.S.T. 2283, 314 U.N.T.S. 105. The Fur Seal Convention, a four-party agreement among the United States, the Soviet Union, Canada, and Japan, prohibited pelagic sealing (the hunting of seals at sea) in the North Pacific Ocean. See id. pmbl., art. III. It also substantially limited land sealing in the North Pacific for commercial purposes, and distributed the benefits from commercial land sealing operations among the treaty’s parties. See id. arts. V(2)(d), IX. In addition, the Convention prohibited the importation of sealskins obtained by pelagic sealing in the North Pacific. See id. art. VIII(2). The Fur Seal Convention has since expired, but the Fur Seal Act remains in effect. See 16 U.S.C.A. § 1151 (West, Westlaw through P.L. 113-74).

The Fur Seal Act’s ban on pelagic sealing applies both “on lands or waters under the jurisdiction of the United States,” 16 U.S.C. § 1152, and in “the waters of the Pacific Ocean north of the thirtieth parallel of north latitude, including the Bering, Okhotsk, and Japan Seas,” id. § 1151(g). To this end, the Act extends the United States’ enforcement jurisdiction extraterritorially. It provides that parties to the Convention, including the United States, may “board and search” a treaty party-flagged ship on the high seas that is “outfitted for the harvesting of living marine resources” if there exists “reasonable cause to believe” that the ship has violated the Convention’s pelagic sealing ban. Id. § 1156(a). The Act further provides that parties to the Convention, including the United States, enjoy enforcement authority with respect to the Convention’s proscription on pelagic sealing within their exclusive economic zones (“EEZs”)—though parties cannot enforce the Convention within other states’ EEZs. See 16 U.S.C. § 1156(a) (prohibiting Fur Seal Convention parties’ enforcement of the pelagic sealing ban “within the areas in which another State exercises fisheries jurisdiction”).

With the Fur Seal Convention’s expiration in 1984, the United States no longer possesses the authority under international law to conduct extraterritorial inspections of foreign-flagged vessels suspected of pelagic sealing activities, and foreign-flagged vessels’ extraterritorial inspection of U.S. ships suspected of sealing would be similarly unauthorized. The Fur Seal Act’s enabling of the United States’ inspection of U.S.-flagged vessels on the high seas and within the U.S. EEZ likely remains valid, however.

Finally, the Fur Seal Act also reaches extraterritorial pelagic sealing activity by barring the “use [of] any port or harbor or other place under the jurisdiction of the United States for any purpose connected in any way with [pelagic sealing.]” 16 U.S.C. § 1152. It further bars the transport, importation, sale, or possession of “fur seals or the parts thereof” at “any port or place or on any vessel, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States[.]” Id.

Additional reference information:


The Plunder Statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1658

The Plunder of Distressed Vessels Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1658, also known as the “Plunder Statute,” criminalizes the looting or destruction of a vessel that is wrecked, stranded, adrift, or in distress at sea.  Section 1658(a).  The Act further prohibits the “willful[] obstruct[ion of] the escape of any person endeavoring to save his life from” from such a vessel, and the “hold[ing] out or show[ing of] any false light [e.g., a beacon], or extinguish[ment of] any true light, with intent to bring any vessel sailing upon the sea into danger or distress[.]”  Section 1658(b).  The punishment for violation of these proscriptions is imprisonment from 10 years to life.  Id.

The statute applies to “any . . . place within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States[.]”  Section 1658(a).  Initially, the extent of this broad jurisdictional grant was interpreted inconsistently.  For example, in United States v. Pitman, 27 F. Cas. 540 (D. Mass. 1852), the court held that the looting of a wrecked vessel on a foreign shore fell within the ambit of the Plunder Statute, and it upheld the punishment of a U.S. ship captain for taking treasure from a shipwreck on the shores of Sumatra (which was, at the time, a Dutch colony).  A decade later, however, the court in United States v. Smiley, 27 F. Cas. 1132 (C.C.N.D. Cal. 1864) went to great lengths not to punish looters of a sunken U.S. steamship that lay within Mexican territorial waters.  Although the Smiley court ultimately held that the 2-year-old wreck at issue was “abandoned” and, therefore, not covered by the Plunder Statute, it noted in dicta that “[w]hatever was . . . done with reference to [the] property [that was] once on board [the wrecked steamship] . . . was done out of the jurisdiction of the United States.”  Id. at 1134.

Despite this early confusion in Plunder Statute jurisprudence, the geographic scope of the United States’ admiralty and maritime jurisdiction is now relatively well-settled.  See generally David J. Bederman, Admiralty Jurisdiction, 31 J. Mar. L. & Com. 189 (2000) (providing an overview of the subject of federal admiralty jurisdiction, and suggesting that “the breadth and reach of that jurisdiction may no longer be the contentious issue it once was.”).  Federal maritime and admiralty jurisdiction is understood simply to extend to the operation of vessels in navigable waters, and to acts involving or aboard U.S.-flagged vessels traveling thereupon.  United States v. Flores, 289 U.S. 137, 150–59 (1933).  The United States Code defines a “vessel” broadly as “every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.”  1 U.S.C. § 3.  “Navigable waters” have been defined as waters that: (1) are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide (The Steamboat Thomas Jefferson, 23 U.S. (10 Wheat.) 428 (1825)); (2) are presently navigable (The Daniel Ball, 77 U.S. (10 Wall.) 557 (1870)); (3) are potentially navigable (i.e., with improvements) (The Montello, 87 U.S. (20 Wall.) 430 (1874)); or (4) were navigable in the past (Econ. Light & Power Co. v. United States, 256 U.S. 113 (1921)).  Importantly, U.S. admiralty and maritime jurisdiction extends extraterritorially to cover acts done on the high seas, provided the acts were carried out “in furtherance of an activity bearing a significant relationship to a traditional maritime activity,” Offshore Logistics, Inc. v. Tallentire, 477 U.S. 207, 218–19 (1986), and even to acts committed within the territory of another country, provided the acts involved (or were committed aboard) a U.S.-flagged vessel.  See Flores, 289 U.S. at 150–59.

Thus, even though the Plunder Statute has not been the subject of a judicial opinion since the late-19th century, it is likely that the above-described consensus regarding the geographic extent of the United States’ admiralty and maritime jurisdiction resolves the early confusion surrounding the Plunder Statute’s reach.

Additional reference information:


Ports and Waterways Safety Act of 1972 (PWSA), 33 U.S.C. §§ 1221-1236

The Ports and Waterways Safety Act of 1972 (PWSA) was enacted to promote navigation, vessel safety, and protection of the marine environment. 33 U.S.C. § 1221. The Act authorizes the United States Coast Guard (USCG) to take measures necessary for safeguarding and securing maritime activities. PWSA grants authority to, inter alia: establish vessel traffic services and separation schemes; require installation and use of specified navigation and communications equipment; require receipt of prearrival messages; establish water or waterfront safety zones; and issue operation or anchoring orders to specific vessels. 33 U.S.C. §§ 1223-1225.

Applicability of PWSA varies with its granted authorities. The USCG’s authority to issue orders directed to a specific vessel is applicable to any vessel in a port or place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, or in the navigable waters of the United States, 33 U.S.C. § 1223(b); whereas, the requirement for receipt of prearrival messages may apply to any vessel destined for a port or place subject to U.S. jurisdiction, 33 U.S.C. § 1223(a)(5). Vessel traffic services—reporting and operating requirements, routing systems, etc. — may be established in ports or places under U.S. jurisdiction, in navigable waters of the U.S., or in an area covered by international agreement. 33 U.S.C. § 1223(a)(1). Additionally, the designation of necessary fairways and traffic separation schemes shall be applicable to vessels operating in the U.S. territorial sea as well as to vessels in high seas approaches to U.S. ports or places which originate outside the territorial sea. 33. U.S.C. §1223(c)(1). Ship routing measures that are located entirely outside the U.S territorial sea or that cross into the U.S. territorial sea must also be approved by the International Maritime Organization. 33. U.S.C. § 1230. Prior to making such a designation, however, the USCG must consult with the Secretaries of Commerce, State, Interior, and Army, as well as with the Governors of any affected States, to consider other uses of the proposed area. Once designated, PWSA authorizes the USCG, to the extent reasonable and necessary for the purpose of the designation, to make the use of such fairways and traffic separation schemes mandatory for specific types and sizes of foreign and domestic vessels operating in the U.S. territorial sea, as well as for specific types and sizes of U.S. vessels operating in the high seas beyond the U.S. territorial sea. 33 U.S.C. § 1223(c). The USCG may investigate any incident, accident, or act involving the loss or destruction of, or damage to, any structure subject to PWSA, or which affects or may affect the safety or environmental quality of the ports, harbors, or navigable waters of the United States. 33 U.S.C. § 1227. For applicability of discrete measures taken pursuant to the authorities above, please see the USCG Regulations promulgated under PWSA, available through the link provided below.

PWSA does not apply to the Panama Canal nor does it apply to foreign vessels either in innocent passage through the U.S. territorial sea or through navigable waters of the U.S. which form part of an international straight, so long as the vessel is not destined for, or departing from, a port or place subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S. (except pursuant to international treaty, convention, or agreement, 33 C.F.R. 160.103(c)). 33 U.S.C. § 1223(d).

Additional reference information: Some of these links are to external sites.


Recreational Vessels Act, 46 U.S.C. §§ 4301–4311

Enacted on August 26, 1983, the Recreational Vessels Act authorizes the U.S. Coast Guard to issue minimum safety standards for recreational vessels and associated equipment carried on such vessels. For purposes of the Act, a recreational vessel is one manufactured, rented, leased, chartered or used primarily for pleasure (46 U.S.C. § 2101).

Associated equipment includes a recreational vessel’s systems, accessories, components, appurtenances, and marine safety articles; in certain situations radio equipment is exempt (46 U.S.C. § 2101). The U.S. Coast Guard administers the statute (14 U.S.C. § 2).

The Recreational Vessels Act applies to U.S. and foreign recreational vessels and associated equipment that are operating on waters subject to United States jurisdiction (46 U.S.C. § 4301). United States waters extend to the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, which was claimed by Presidential Proclamation No. 5030 of March 10, 1983. Also, the Recreational Vessels Act was amended to include the current U.S. territorial sea, which was extended from 3 nautical miles (nm) to 12nm by Presidential Proclamation No. 5928 of December 27, 1988. The Act also applies to U.S. flagged recreational vessels operating on the high seas.

Two exceptions to the Act’s general application exist. The first is that unless otherwise provided, the Act does not apply to a foreign-flagged vessel operating temporarily on U.S. waters (46 U.S.C. §4301). No statutory or case law guidance was found explaining the meaning of operating temporarily. Second, certain waters lying entirely in New Hampshire are not within the Act’s jurisdiction until a final judicial decision determines whether they are navigable waters of the United States (46 U.S.C. §4301).

Additional reference information:

  • Recreational Vessels Act, 46 U.S.C. §§ 4301–4311.
  • Definitions of recreational vessel and associated equipment, 46 U.S.C § 2101.
  • Primary Duties of the U.S. Coast Guard, 14 U.S.C. § 2.
  • Proclamation 5030 of March 10, 1983, Exclusive Economic Zone of the United States (48 Fed. Reg. 10605 (March 14, 1983)).
  • Proclamation 5928 of December 27, 1988, Territorial Sea of the United States (54 Fed. Reg. 777 (Jan. 9, 1989)).
  • Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats (and equipment), from the U.S. Coast Guard.
  • USCG Regulations implementing the RVA, 33 C.F.R. Part 183.
  • National Boating Safety Advisory Council (NBSAC): created under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (5 U.S.C. §§ 1–16), the NBSAC advises the U.S. Coast Guard on recreational vessel standards and regulations.

    The Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899 (RHA), 33 U.S.C. §§401 et seq.,

    The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 is the initial authority for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) regulatory permit program to protect navigable waters in the development of harbors and other construction and excavation. Section 10 of the RHA (33 U.S.C. § 403) prohibits the unauthorized obstruction or alteration of any navigable water of the U.S, and provides that the construction of any structure in or over any navigable water of the U.S., or the accomplishment of any other work affecting the course, location, condition, or physical capacity of such waters is unlawful unless the work has been recommended by the Chief of Engineers and authorized by the Secretary of the Army. Section 12 (33 U.S.C. § 406) establishes penalties for the violation of RHA sections 401403, and 404, and authorizes the circuit court exercising jurisdiction in any district where structures erected in violation of these provisions exist to enforce the structures’ removal by injunction. The geographic jurisdiction of the RHA includes all navigable waters of the United States, which are defined as "those waters that are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide and/or are presently used, or have been used in the past, or may be susceptible to use to transport interstate or foreign commerce." (33 C.F.R. Part 329.4). The authority of the Secretary of the Army to prevent obstructions to navigation in navigable waters of the United States was extended to artificial islands, installations, and other devices located on the seabed, as well as to the seaward limit of the outer continental shelf by section 4(f) of the amended Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953. (Pub. L. No. 212, 67 Stat. 1953; 43 U.S.C. § 1333(e); 33 C.F.R. Part 322).

    Additional reference information: Some of these links are to external sites.

    • Environmental Laboratory of the Army Corps of Engineers: Rivers and Harbors Act Legal Matters
    • Geographic and Jurisdictional Limits of Oceanic and Tidal Waters, 33 C.F.R. § 329.12 (Corps’ regulatory jurisdiction over navigable waters of the United States typically extends to include all ocean and coastal waters up to three nautical miles from the baseline, however, under 43 U.S.C. § 1333(e) the Corps’ authority extends to artificial islands, installations, and other devices on the outer continental shelf.)

    • Authorities to Issue Permits, 33 C.F.R. § 320.2(b); Activities Requiring Permits, 33 C.F.R. § 322.3(b)Special Policies, 33 C.F.R. § 322.5(f) (regulations on Corps jurisdiction over artificial islands, installations, and other devices located on the seabed to the seaward limit of the outer continental shelf).

    • United States v. Ray, 294 F. Supp. 532, 541 (S.D. Fla. 1969), aff’d in part, rev’d in part, 423 F.2d 16, 19 (5th Cir. 1970), order clarified, 1970 A.M.C 2393 (1970), and aff’d in part, rev’d in part, 1970 A.M.C. 2393 (1970) (holding that RHA permitting provisions apply to excavation and construction activities on coral reefs in an area of the OCS a few miles offshore under the high seas outside of the pre-1988 12nm territorial sea limit); See also Atlantis Development Corp. v. U.S., 379 F.2d 818, 821 (5th Cir. 1967) (statements of the Department of the Interior and the State Department asserting that the coral reef area at issue in United States v. Ray is outside of the territorial limits of the United States and in the high seas).

    • Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, Inc. v. U.S. Dept. of the Army, 398 F.3d 105, 109 (1st Cir. 2005) (holding that the Corps’ regulatory jurisdiction on the OCS under RHA section 10 is not restricted to structures related to mineral extraction).

    • Zabel v. Tabb, 430 F.2d 199, 208-209 (5th Cir. 1970) (holding that the RHA in combination with the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act and the National Environmental Policy Act authorizes the Secretary of the Army to refuse granting permits for purely ecological reasons, regardless of the proposed activity’s effects on navigation, flood control, or the production of power).


        Whaling Convention Act of 1949, 16 U.S.C. §§ 916-9161.

        The Whaling Convention Act of 1949 implements the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. Under the Act, it is illegal for any person subject to the jurisdiction of the United States to engage in whaling in violation of the Convention or of the Act. 16 U.S.C. § 916c(a)(1). It is also illegal to ship, transport, purchase, sell, offer for sale, import, export, or possess a whale or whale product taken in violation of the Convention or the Act. 16 U.S.C. § 916c(a)(2). Currently, the only whaling regulated under the Act is aboriginal subsistence whaling, and separately, the Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits commercial whaling. 16 U.S.C. § 1372(f).

        The Act applies to any "person," a term defined to mean "every individual, partnership, corporation, and association subject to the jurisdiction of the United States." 16 U.S.C. § 916(d). The phrase "subject to the jurisdiction of the United States" is not further defined in the Act. There is no geographical limit for the Act’s application to U.S. nationals and U.S. flag vessels. For non-nationals and foreign flag vessels, the seaward limit of the Act’s application is the seaward limit of U.S maritime jurisdiction (200 nm from the territorial sea baseline).

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