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Key Takeaways

  • Maritime Law focuses more on the private business aspect while sea laws focus more on the public law.
  • There are four aspects under Maritime Law, namely: The Merchant Marine Act of 1928, The Death on the High Seas Act, (DOHSA), The Longshore and Harbour Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA), and The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA).
  • The Law of the Seas covers three aspects: Jurisdiction for Coastal Waters, Natural Resources Ownership, and The Longshore and Harbour Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA).


Maritime Law and The Law of The Seas are two terms that are often confused and used as synonyms. Long story short – they literally have nothing to do with on another, no matter how similar they might sound. If you are planning to practice Maritime Law, you should know about the difference that exists between both of these fields.

The key difference is that Maritime Law deals with domestic issues while The Law of The Seas deal with international affairs.

However, this is not all. It is just the beginning of the concept.

In this article, you will find the basic things you need to know about when it comes to comparing Maritime Law vs. The Law of The Sea. Apart from the difference in their jurisdictions, there are other things also that force them to stay apart.

What Is Maritime Law

Maritime Law has a much narrower jurisdiction that The Law Of The Sea. Maritime Law usually applies to private entities like ship owners, their employees, and any clients that ships might have on board. Many of these laws have been around for years, constantly developing from various sets of rules and customs. The following is what is majorly covered under Maritime law. These are the statutes that are a part of Maritime Law.

  • The Merchant Marine Act of 1928 – Otherwise known as the Jones Act this law permits men injured at sea to sue negligent shipowners for their injuries they face. An essential ingredient of this law is that it also requires that American ships and crews transport passengers or goods between American ports.
  • The Death on the High Seas Act, (DOHSA) – The relatives of a dead worker can sue the employer of the worker if they are on high seas (more that 3 nautical miles away from shore). The employer might have to be responsible for financial support loss, funeral expenses, and the emotional and care the deceased cannot provide.
  • The Longshore and Harbour Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA) – This legislation grants non-sailors the right to sue those involved in the maritime industry.
  • The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) – This act provides compensation for oil rig workers who are hurt on the job and non-sailor professionals working in the United States EEZ.

What Is The Law Of The Seas

The Law of The Seas deals was introduced to establish boundaries in regards to maritime movement and conduct. The principles and the rules were established centuries ago to avoid the wars and conflicts that occurred at the sea. Although they’ve been ratified over the centuries, the laws are still only the guidelines that ships and vessels have about what they can and cannot do when they are in international waters.

The law of the sea governs the interaction between different nations that fall under maritime affairs. These rules and principles were developed over centuries until being codified in the 1994 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or “UNCLOS.” The United States did not ratify the convention, although it recognizes UNCLOS as a part of customary international law and follows these set guidelines in most cases.

The Law of The Seas generally covers the follows aspects:

  • Jurisdiction for Coastal Waters – For centuries, the territory of each country extended three nautical miles into the ocean. Many countries have extended their territorial waters beyond the 12 nautical mile mark, also called the baseline, since the beginning of the 20th century. UNCLOS establishes 12 nautical mile territorial waters and a contiguous area of 24 nautical miles. This allows nations to still enforce their laws regarding customs, taxation and pollution.
  • Natural Resources Ownership – Each country can claim an Exclusive Economy Zone of up to 200 nautical mile from the baseline. If the continental shelf extends that far, it will be 350 nautical miles. Each nation has the right to exclusive exploitation of fisheries and mineral resources within its EEZ.
  • Navigational Rights – Vessels of other nations, even military ones, have the right to pass through territorial water but only in the way that is necessary to reach their destination. Foreign vessels cannot violate any laws or cause harm to the country to which the territorial waters belong.

A Few Case References

Here are some cases that include the application of both maritime and sea laws.

People of Rull ex rel Ruepong v MV Kyowa Violet

In the above case, the question of who owns the rights to the seabed and coastal sea resources was raised. A cargo vessel from Micronesia was damaged after its collision into a reef while it was trying to navigate into the harbour.

There was oil in the harbour waters as well as the reef was damaged. The harbour disallowed fishing and swimming. Three traditional chiefs, representing the coastal residents of the affected municipalities, presented a lawsuit for damages for maritime tort. The court ruled that the plaintiffs were entitled to damages.

This was based on the provisions of the Constitution that recognizes the traditional rights and ownership natural resources and areas within the state's marine space within 12 miles of the island baselines. According to the court, "ownership" meant an exclusive right to exploit and use the resources in the area.

Tokyo Corp. vs. Mago Island Estate Ltd.

Fiji's High Court ruled that the state has rights to the water, seabed and foreshore. Although the judgement offers interesting historical perspectives, the parties did not agree to resolve the issue of fisheries rights. A resort owner filed a claim against Kosrae State to have his beachfront damaged by state road work. The court ruled that the private landowner could not sue the state for rocks that were deposited below the normal high-water mark, as that territory is state land.

Chuuk v Secretary of Finance

This case also involved a customary right argument and federalism. The FSM and its four member states requested a declaratory judgment stating that they had the right to control and ownership of the EEZ's living marine resources. They also received revenues from the sale and renewal of fishing licenses, which allowed fishing within the EEZ. The states argued that the Micronesian customary and traditional practices vested ownership over the off-shore fishing resources within the EEZ. Based on language in the Constitution, and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was ratified by the FSM, the States' claim fell apart. The constitution gave the sole right to the national government to regulate the exploitation within the EEZ. Although there was no ownership of the resources, the position taken by the national government was in line with international treaty obligations. It is interesting that, while the FSM Constitution states that half of the EEZ-generated revenues must be paid to state governments, the provision for the living resources is not applicable.


The difference between these overlapping terms have been briefly covered. Even though they are different, when you are practicing either of the areas of law, you should know about the other. For instance, if you are practicing Maritime Law, you should be aware about The Law of The Seas. They are different, yes, but you should certainly know about what each aspect has. Once that is known, the jurisdiction of the crime or incidence that has occurred will also be clear.

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