Federal-State Maritime Boundary Issues
CRS Report for Congress
Federal-State Maritime Boundary Issues
May 5, 2005
Laura K. Welles
Resources, Sciences, and Industry Division
Aaron M. Flynn
American Law Division
Eugene H. Buck
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
Resources, Sciences, and Industry Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Federal-State Maritime Boundary Issues
Over the last few decades, new uses for coastal and offshore areas have
emerged, including aquaculture and renewable energy (wind, wave, and tidal), while
more traditional uses, such as commercial fishing and oil and gas development on the
Outer Continental Shelf, have continued to flourish. As technologies improve,
companies may increasingly seek to move activities farther offshore and to expand
resource development in both state and federal waters. Various interests argue over
which policies and regulations will best minimize conflicts between competing
offshore resource users while effectively safeguarding already crowded coastal areas
from further development.
An issue that is fundamental to the regulation of offshore activities is
determining which level of government has primary jurisdiction over particular
offshore areas. Who has jurisdiction depends, in part, upon the federal-state
maritime boundaries. Unlike most countries, the U.S. federal government shares
jurisdiction over its 12-mile (nautical) territorial sea with its coastal states. The 1953
Submerged Lands Act (SLA) generally gives coastal states title to the submerged
lands, waters, and natural resources located within three nautical miles of the
coastline. The waters, seabed, and natural resources beyond these three miles belong
to the federal government. Identifying where a federal-state maritime boundary lies
is not always an easy task.
Federal-state maritime boundaries are represented on nautical charts published
by the National Ocean Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA). These charts reflect the federal government’s official
position on where U.S. maritime boundaries (federal and state) are located.
Determining the baseline from which federal-state maritime boundaries are
determined can be difficult, depending on the geography of the coast. International
law, which guides U.S. practice, recognizes different methods for locating a coastal
baseline in such circumstances.
The U.S. has traditionally applied a measurement standard that minimizes the
extent of state offshore waters. But while setting maritime boundaries is primarily
a federal prerogative, states have continued to challenge the National Ocean Service
charts. When a U.S. coastal state disagrees with the federal government’s position
on its maritime boundary, the courts have been called upon to resolve the dispute,
often the U.S. Supreme Court under its original jurisdiction under article III of the
Congress also may become more involved in maritime boundary and
jurisdiction issues as the pace of offshore development increases, and legislation to
address some of these issues, such as S. 735, has been introduced in the 109th
Congress. This report will be updated as circumstances warrant.
In troduction ..................................................1
Maritime Jurisdiction Under International Law...................3
History of Federal-State Jurisdiction over the Territorial Sea............4
Submerged Lands Act..........................................6
Determining a State’s Coastline...................................7
Straight Baselines (or Closing Lines)..............................9
Bodies of Water That Constitute Inland Waters:
Juridical Bays and Historic Waters...........................11
Aboriginal Title to the Seabed and Natural Resources................12
Charting Maritime Boundaries...................................15
Current Litigation Concerning Inland Waters.......................17
Current Changes to Federal-State Maritime Boundaries...............17
List of Figures
Figure 1. Norway’s Straight Baselines................................10
Figure 2. Hypothetical Juridical Bay..................................11
Federal-State Maritime Boundary Issues
Over the last few decades, new uses for coastal and offshore areas have
emerged, including aquaculture and renewable energy (wind, wave, and tidal), while
more traditional uses, such as commercial fishing and oil and gas development on the
Outer Continental Shelf, have continued to flourish. As technologies improve,
companies will likely seek to expand offshore activities and conduct many of them
farther from the coast. For example, interest in offshore wind energy has already
grown in recent years, resulting in numerous offshore projects being proposed off the
coasts of Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia.1
As pressure for development intensifies, various interests argue over how to
balance the concerns of resource developers, resource users, and coastal
communities.2 A key factor in determining who can make important decisions on
these and related regulatory issues is determining the location of the boundary
between federal and state offshore waters.
Established boundaries are key in knowing what laws apply to a particular
situation. For example, before a company applies for a permit to build an offshore
wind farm, it needs to know whether its proposed project will be in state or federal
waters and whether regulatory authority over the project will reside in the federal
government, state government, or both. Moreover, the company needs to know
whether or not the maritime boundary is likely to change over time, thereby affecting
its project and overall investment. All of these uncertainties have arisen in the Cape
Wind offshore wind project off the coast of Massachusetts.
Federal-state offshore boundary disputes are not new phenomena. For example,
in 1953 the House Judiciary Committee, in considering legislation on who — the
1 Betsie Blumberg, Wind Farms: An Emerging Dilemma for East Coast National Parks,
available at [http://www2.nature.nps.gov/YearinReview/PDF/YIR2003_05_D.pdf], visited
Apr. 20, 2005.
2 As indicated by the Pew Oceans Commission report and the U.S. Commission on Ocean
Policy report, there are a variety of arguments concerning which policies and regulations
will best minimize conflicts between competing offshore resource users while effectively
safeguarding already crowded coastal areas from over-development. Regulating offshore
activities raises many issues (e.g., options for offshore permitting) that will not be addressed
in this report. Instead, this report focuses on the many intricacies involved in determining
federal-state maritime boundaries. The Pew Oceans Commission report is available online
at [http://www.pewtrusts.org/pdf/env_pew_oceans_final_report.pdf], visited Apr. 19, 2005.
The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy report is also available online at
[http://www.oceancommission.gov/documents/full_color_rpt/welcome.html], visited Apr.
federal government or the states — should own and control the development of
offshore resources, observed:
[T]he interminable litigation over [offshore] areas involving the Federal
and State Governments . . . has added nothing but confusion and
controversy . . . . Such a state must not be permitted to exist indefinitely
for the best interest of all parties.3
The deleterious effects of boundary disputes at a time when Congress saw a vital
need to develop offshore oil4 led to enactment of the Submerged Lands Act (SLA)5
in 1953. But even though the SLA, discussed further below, clarified the respective
maritime jurisdictions of the federal government and the states, litigation continued
over how the act should be applied. Since 1953, the U.S. Supreme Court has been
called upon to resolve numerous maritime boundary disputes between federal and
state governments. No challenge to the SLA’s general resolution of jurisdictional
issues succeeded,6 and after decades of litigation, most disputes have been laid to
rest.7 But even today, however, both Alaska8 and Massachusetts9 are asserting
ownership over waters claimed by the U.S. government. By declaring title to these
3 H.Rept. 83-215 at 2 (1953)(describing the “Tidelands Controversy”).
5 43 U.S.C. §§ 1301, et seq. This act gave control over the submerged lands, out to three
geographical miles, to all coastal states. See United States v. Louisiana, 363 U.S. 1, 7
(1960). The term submerged lands refers to the seabed or ocean floor.
6 Most disputes arise when states are either determining their coastline or their seaward
7 Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York,
California, and Alaska have all been involved in boundary litigation with the federal
government. See United States v. Louisiana, 363 U.S. 1 (1960); United States v. Florida,
Alaska, 521 U.S. 1 (1997).
8 Alaska is currently involved in a lawsuit against the federal government, seeking title to
the submerged lands located in the Alexander Archipelago. This area comprises more than
1,000 islands and is larger than most states. Oral arguments were heard before the Supreme
Court on Jan. 10, 2005.
9 In United States v. Maine, the Supreme Court rejected Massachusetts’ claim that Nantucket
Sound qualifies as inland waters. 475 U.S. 89, 90 (1986). Instead the Court ruled in favor
of the federal government by holding that Nantucket Sound constitutes “partly territorial sea
and partly high seas.” The Court’s decision essentially granted the federal government
jurisdiction over certain portions of Nantucket Sound. In mid-February 2005, Massachusetts
state officials announced that a pile of rocks found in Nantucket Sound could extend state
waters by about twelve miles. “State Pondering Border Move that Could Affect Cape Wind
Farm,” Boston Globe, available at [http://www.wggb.com/archive/environment/windfarm_
cape_border.htm], visited Mar. 8, 2005. This discovery may change the location of the
waters, both states are attempting, by different methods,10 to extend their coastlines
and, with it, their seaward boundaries.
Maritime Jurisdiction Under International Law. The extent of
federal/state jurisdiction over offshore waters is related to the broader issue of the
dominion of sovereign nations over their coastal waters: as a rule, the same baseline
from which the U.S. determines national jurisdiction under international law is used
to determine federal v. state jurisdiction within U.S. waters.
Under international law,11 the world’s oceans are divided into numerous
jurisdictional zones. Prior to President Truman’s Proclamation in 1945 on U.S.
rights to seabed resources,12 only three zones existed: a coastal nation’s inland (or13
internal) waters, the territorial sea (only three nautical miles at the time) and the
high seas.14 Much has changed since 1945. Today the jurisdictional zones include:
!a coastal nation’s internal waters, 15
!the territorial sea (now 12 nautical miles, rather than 3),
10 Alaska sought its boundary change through litigation, while Massachusetts applied to the
federal government. When litigated, the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to determine
maritime boundaries between a state and the federal government. Otherwise, federal-state
maritime boundaries are reviewed and later determined by the Ad Hoc Committee on
Delimitation of the United States Coastline. This Ad Hoc Committee is discussed later on
in this report.
11 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Dec. 10, 1982, 21 I.L.M. 1261 (entered
into force Nov. 16, 1994). Hereafter referred to as UNLCOS III.
12 “Policy of the United States with Respect to the Natural Resources of the Subsoil and Sea
Bed of the Continental Shelf,” 10 Fed. Reg. 12303 (Oct. 2, 1945). With this proclamation,
President Truman declared U.S. jurisdiction over the “natural resources of the subsoil and
sea bed of the continental shelf.” Id.
13 It is “mainly through the action and practice of the United States of America and Great
Britain since the end of the eighteenth century, the distance of three miles from shore was
more or less formally adopted by most maritime states as ... more definitely fixing the limits
of their jurisdiction and rights for various purposes, and in particular, for exclusive fishery.”
United States v. California, 332 U.S. 19, 33, n.12 (1947) quoting Thomas W. Fulton,
Sovereignty of the Sea, (Edinburgh, Scotland: William Blackwood & Sons, 1911). Most of
the European countries adhered to the three nautical mile rule; however, there were some
maritime countries that claimed larger belts. These countries included Spain (6 nautical
miles), Mexico (9 nautical miles), and the Soviet Union (12 nautical miles). Shalowitz,
Shore and Sea Boundaries, p. 25.
14 United States v. Louisiana, 470 U.S. 93, 98-99 (1985).
15 UNCLOS III art. 3. President Reagan extended the U.S. territorial sea from 3 to 12
nautical miles (“Territorial Sea of the United States of America, Proclamation 5928 of
December 27, 1988,” 54 Fed. Reg. 777 (Jan. 9, 1989)).
16 The contiguous zone lies seaward of the territorial sea. This zone extends 24 nautical
miles from the coastline. (UNCLOS III art. 33.) President Clinton extended the U.S.
contiguous zone from 12 to 24 nautical miles. “Contiguous Zone of the United States,” 64
!exclusive economic zone,17
!continental shelf,18 and
!the high seas.19
While a coastal nation’s jurisdiction does extend out to the high seas, the level of
authority a coastal nation may exercise increases closer to its own shoreline.20
Thus, U.S. authority is greatest in its territorial sea and least in the high seas.
Within the territorial sea, countries maintain sovereignty over the air space, seabed,
subsoil, and water column.21 A coastal nation can regulate fish stocks, oil and gas
development, and other natural resources. Its jurisdiction over the territorial sea is
essentially analogous to the sovereignty a nation possesses over its land territory,
subject only to the right of innocent passage.22 Federal-state boundary disputes
concern their respective jurisdictions within the territorial sea only. Jurisdiction
beyond the territorial sea is exclusively federal.
History of Federal-State Jurisdiction over the Territorial Sea
At the turn of the 20th century, there was a widely held impression, based on
historic practices and general language in case law, that U.S. coastal states held title
to the submerged lands beneath those waters “subject to the ebb and flow of the tide”
— commonly known as tidal waters, a subset of the navigable waters.23 A broader
Fed. Reg. 48701 (Sept. 8, 1999).
17 The exclusive economic zone (EEZ) lies seaward of the territorial sea and extends 200
nautical miles from the coastline. (UNCLOS III art. 57.)
18 The continental shelf refers to the seabed and subsoil of the submerged land areas that lie
beyond a coastal nation’s territorial sea. This area either extends 200 miles from the
coastline or beyond, depending upon the geographical composition of the coastal nation’s
submerged lands. (UNCLOS III art. 76(1).)
19 The high seas constitute “all parts of the sea that are not included in the exclusive
economic zone, in the territorial sea, or in the internal waters of a State.” (UNCLOS III art.
20 U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, Appendix 6: Review of U.S. Ocean and Coastal Law,
available at [http://www.oceancommission.gov/documents/full_color_rpt/append_6.pdf],
visited Mar. 9, 2005.
21 UNCLOS III art. 2.
22 See UNCLOS III art. 2.1; Restatement (Third) of the Foreign Relations Law of the United
States, §§ 512, 513 (1986). The right of innocent passage refers to a right given to all ships
to travel on the surface waters of foreign nation’s territorial sea and archipelagic waters. A
ship’s passage must be continuous and expeditious. A ship may stop and anchor as long as
it is “incidental to ordinary navigation or rendered necessary by force majeure or distress
or for the purpose of rendering assistance to persons, ships or aircraft in danger or distress.”
UNCLOS III art. 18. A ship’s passage is considered innocent “so long as it is not prejudicial
to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State.” UNCLOS III art. 19.
23 Illinois Central Railroad Company v. Illinois, 146 U.S. 387 (1892). The Supreme Court
assumption also prevailed in this era: coastal states were assumed to hold exclusive
property rights to lands beneath inland waters and a stake in the territorial sea (then
although there was no clear legal authority for this conclusion.24 It was the growing
importance of seabed resources, especially offshore oil, that finally spurred the
federal government to challenge these assumptions directly.
Modern controversies over control of the territorial sea began in the 1920s when
the State of California, claiming ownership over its coastal waters, issued certain oil
and gas leases for the submerged lands of the Santa Barbara Channel.25 Applications
for oil and gas leases were also submitted to the federal government during this
period, and the customary response to such requests was to inform the company that
the federal government lacked the necessary authority to grant such leases.26 Upon
looking into the matter more closely, however, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes
began to assert federal ownership over the submerged lands. Congress also began to
weigh in on dominion over submerged lands. On the one hand, the 75th and 76th
Congresses considered joint resolutions specifically authorizing the Attorney General
to sue California over ownership to the seabed.27 By contrast, the 79th Congress
passed a joint resolution to quitclaim to the states all U.S. interest in the lands lying
within three nautical miles of the coastline (excepting previously purchased,
condemned or donated lands).28 President Truman vetoed this measure and the veto
With oil and mineral rights at stake, the U.S. government eventually sued
California, invoking the original jurisdiction30 of the Supreme Court. In United
stated “it is the settled rule of law in this court that absolute property in, and dominion and
sovereignty over, the soils under the tide waters in the original States were reserved to the
several States, and that the new States since admitted have the same rights, sovereignty and
jurisdiction in that behalf as the original States possess within their respective borders.”
Knight v. United States Lands Ass’n, 142 U.S. 161, 183 (1891).
24 Michael W. Reed, Shore and Sea Boundaries (Volume 3): The Development of
International Maritime Boundary Principles Through United States Practice 5,
(Washington, DC: GPO, 2000).
25 Shalowitz, Shore and Sea Boundaries, p. 3.
26 Title to Submerged Lands Beneath Tidal and Navigable Waters, Joint Hearings before the
Committees on the Judiciary (Feb. 23, 1948). Hereafter referred to as Submerged Lands.
27 S.J. Res. 208, 75th Cong., 1st Sess. (1937) (passed the Senate and favorably reported to the
House, but never considered by the full House); S.J. Res. 83 and 92, 76th Cong., 1st Sess.
(1939) (hearings held but no further action).
28 H.J.Res. 225, 79th Cong. 2d Sess. (1946).
29 92 Cong. Rec. 10660, 10745 (1946).
30 Usually the Supreme Court sits in appellate jurisdiction, meaning it is reviewing a lower
court’s decision. Under Article III of the Constitution, the Supreme Court has original
jurisdiction over cases involving states as parties. Original jurisdiction means that the sitting
States v. California,31 the Court held that the federal government, and not the states,
had legal authority over the waters and seabed of the territorial sea: “[T]he federal
government rather than the state has paramount rights in and power over the belt,32
... [as well as] full dominion over the resources of the soil under that water area,
including oil.”33 Two other cases soon followed in which the Supreme Court
confirmed that the federal government owned the lands and resources under U.S.
Submerged Lands Act
In 1953, Congress exercised its constitutional power to “dispose of federal
property”35 and enacted the Submerged Lands Act.36 With this act, Congress
generally granted the coastal states title to the waters and submerged lands37 lying
beyond the low-water mark out to three nautical miles. This act also gives states the
express power to lease, develop, and manage the natural resources found within their
waters, seabed, and subsoil.
In delineating jurisdiction in the way it did in the SLA, Congress sought to “fix”
law of the land which, throughout our history prior to the Supreme Court
decision in [United States v. California, 332 U.S. 19 (1947)], was generally
believed and accepted to be the law of the land; namely, that the respective states
are the sovereign owners of the land beneath navigable waters within their38
boundaries and of the natural resources within such lands and waters.
Beyond setting a three-mile general standard for state jurisdiction, the SLA permitted
states bordering the Gulf of Mexico to extend their boundary to three marine leagues
court has the authority to hear and decide the case before any other court may review it.
31 332 U.S. 19 (1947).
32 Here, belt refers to the waters within the territorial sea.
33 United States v. California, 332 U.S. 19, 38 (1947).
34 United States v. Louisiana, 339 U.S. 699 (1950); United States v. Texas, 339 U.S. 707
35 U.S. CONST. Art. IV, § 3, cl. 2.
36 Both Alabama and Rhode Island challenged the constitutionality of the Submerged Lands
Act. The Supreme Court held in Alabama v. Texas that “Congress not only has the
legislative power over the public domain, but it also exercises the powers of the proprietor
therein. Congress may deal with such lands precisely as a private individual may deal with
his farming property” (347 U.S. 272, 273, quoting United States v. Midwest Oil Co., 236
U.S. 459, 474 (1915)).
37 The submerged lands referred to here are those lands that lie beneath the territorial sea.
38 Reed, Shore and Sea Boundaries (Volume 3), p. 18, quoting H.Rept. 695, 82nd Cong., 1st
Sess., (July 12, 1951) to accompany H.R. 4484, A bill to confirm and establish the titles of
the States to lands beneath navigable waters within State boundaries.
if it could be shown that this outer boundary existed at the time of the state’s
admission to the Union. The Gulf of Mexico coasts of Texas and Florida qualified
under this standard.39 The SLA also confirmed that those states bordering the Great
Lakes hold title to waters out to the international boundary with Canada.
In passing the SLA, Congress also made clear that the natural resources found
in those portions of the subsoil and seabed lying seaward of state SLA boundaries
would remain under federal control.40 The SLA grant to the states also included
multiple exceptions in favor of the federal government, including lands acquired by
the federal government and expressly retained by the federal government at the time
the state entered the Union41 and lands occupied by the federal government under a
claim of right.42 The federal government also retained its authority to regulate
commerce, navigation, national defense, power production, and international affairs
within coastal states SLA boundaries.
But although Congress did confirm the seaward boundary of coastal states in the
SLA, the SLA provides no guidance for determining a state’s coastline, the baseline
from which the seaward boundary is determined.43 Delimiting a maritime boundary
can be a complicated endeavor, especially when states with jagged or otherwise
irregular coasts assert that certain adjacent waters constitute inland waters, a separate
category of waters that are inside the coastline and under primary state control. The
Supreme Court has relied on principals of international law to guide it in boundary
Determining a State’s Coastline
As stated above, the SLA sought to settle boundary controversies surrounding
federal-state maritime jurisdiction. The act did resolve most basic issues, but it also
prompted new legal battles between coastal states and the federal government over
39 43 U.S.C. § 1301(b).
40 43 U.S.C. § 1302. In the same year it passed the SLA, Congress further established
federal dominion seaward of the coastal state’s three nautical mile boundary in the Outer
Continental Shelf Lands Act (43 U.S.C. §§ 1331(a), 1332(1)).
41 The Supreme Court dealt with this exemption clause in United States v. Alaska, 521 U.S.
1 (1997). The issue was whether or not the federal government expressly retained
ownership of submerged lands within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National
Petroleum Reserve at Alaskan statehood. The Supreme Court held that the federal
government had retained title to these submerged lands and that ownership to these lands
did not transfer to Alaska at statehood.
42 43 U.S.C. § 1313. See also Reed, Shore and Sea Boundaries (Volume 3), p. 19. The
“claim of right” clause seeks to preserve those “unperfected claims of federal title from
extinction under [Section 1311’s] general ‘conveyance or quitclaim or assignment.’” United
States v. California, 436 U.S. 32, 38 (1978) quoting language from the SLA. 43 U.S.C. §§
43 See United States v. Louisiana, 363 U.S. 1, 33 (1960).
44 United States v. California, 381 U.S. 139, 165 (1965); United States v. Louisiana, 470
U.S. 93 (1985); United States v. Maine, 475 U.S. 89, 93-94 (1986).
about how and where the coastline should be measured.45 After the SLA passed,
about a dozen original actions were filed in the Supreme Court associated with
defining a state’s coastline.46 It was soon clear that Congress had left this job of
defining a state’s coastline to the courts.47
Under the SLA, a state’s coastline is defined as “the line of ordinary low water
along that portion of the coast which is in direct contact with the open sea and the
line marking the seaward limit of inland waters.” The first part of this definition
seems fairly straightforward. Locating the “seaward limit of inland waters,”
however, has proven more difficult, especially without more specific guidance from
Congress.48 Absent domestic legislation pertaining to inland waters, the Supreme
Court decided to adopt the definitions found in the 1958 Geneva Convention on the
Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone, a treaty ratified by the United States and
generally now recognized as customary international law.49 In adopting these
definitions, the Supreme Court dispelled concerns associated with future changes in
international law by freezing the meaning of inland waters to that of the 1958
Convention.50 Moreover, the Court established “a single coastline for both the
administration of the [SLA] and the conduct of [the federal government’s] future
45 Michael W. Reed, “Litigating Maritime Boundary Disputes: The Federal Perspective”
Rights to Oceanic Resources, D.G. Dallmeyer and L. DeVorsey, Jr., eds. (Dordrecht, The
Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1989), pp. 61-73.
46 There were additional SLA lawsuits, but they dealt with other issues (e.g., claim of right
exception and breadth of the territorial sea (Florida and Texas)).
47 Reed, Shore and Sea Boundaries (Volume 3), p. 23.
48 Legislative history indicates that Congress left the definition of inland waters to the
courts. United States v. California, 381 U.S. 139, 150-61 (1965). An early definition for
inland waters was included in the original bill. The provision stated that inland waters
include “all estuaries, ports, harbors, bays, channels, straits, historic bays, and sounds, and
all other bodies of water which join the open sea.” This definition was later removed by the
Senate Committee. See also George W. Skladel, The Coastal Boundaries of Naval
Petroleum Reserve (No. 4) (Anchorage, Alaska: Alaska Sea Grant, 1974).
49 United States v. California, 381 U.S. 139, 164-65 (1965). The Supreme Court stated that
“the comprehensiveness of the Convention provides answers to many of the lesser problems
related to coastlines which, absent the Convention, would be most troublesome.” 1958
Geneva Convention on Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, 15 U.S.T. 1607 .
Hereafter referred to as the 1958 Convention. The United States ratified the 1958
Convention in 1961. United States v. California, 381 U.S. 139, 165 n.32 (1965).
50 United States v. California, 381 U.S. 139, 167 (1965). The Supreme Court recognized the
importance in having definite boundaries. The Court stated that “before today’s decision
no one could say with assurance where lay the line of inland waters as contemplated by the
[SLA]; hence there could have been no tenable reliance on any particular line. After today
that situation will have changed. Expectations will be established and reliance placed on
the line we define.”
51 United States v. California, 381 U.S. 139, 165 (1965).
Straight Baselines (or Closing Lines)
Article 3 of the 1958 Convention states that the “breadth of the territorial sea”
is to be measured from a normal baseline (or coastline). This normal baseline is the
low-water mark along the shore “as marked on large-scale charts officially
recognized by the coastal [nation].” There are some exceptions.
Under special circumstances, international law permits a coastal nation to draw
straight closing lines between two distant coastal points in determining its coastal
line, rather than closely tracking the contours of its ordinary low-water mark. Article
4 of the 1958 Convention specifically states that “where the coast line is deeply
indented and cut into, or if there is a fringe of islands along the coast in its immediate
vicinity,” straight baselines “may be employed in drawing the baseline from which
the breadth of the territorial sea is measured.”52 The language “may be employed”
indicates that Article 4 is not mandatory and instead is an optional provision.53 Thus,
it is ultimately the coastal nation’s decision as to whether it wants to use straight
closing lines to determine Article 4 inland waters.
In providing a coastal nation the opportunity to establish an otherwise complex
boundary through the use of straight baselines, Article 4 has the concomitant effects
of (1) including waters within inland waters that would be part of the territorial sea
under a strict contour system of measurement and (2) pushing maritime boundaries
farther off shore (Figure 1).54
The United States has not adopted the straight-base-line system under Article55
4. This federal government policy has frustrated many coastal states who argue that
portions of their coastlines are well suited for the straight-base-line method.
California, Louisiana, and Alaska have all attempted to use the straight-base-line
system despite the federal government’s position.56 The Supreme Court has
consistently held that “the choice under the Convention to use the straight-base-line
method for determining inland waters claimed against other nations is one that rests57
with the Federal Government, and not with the individual States.” In United States
v. Louisiana, the Court further reasoned that the decision to use the straight-base-line
52 Article 4 also authorizes nations to consider economic interests involved when
determining a particular baseline.
53 See Reed, Shore and Sea Boundaries, Vol. 3), p. 343.
54 Shalowitz, Shore and Sea Boundaries, p. 69.
55 Skladel, The Coastal Boundaries, p. 4. The United States has opted not to use Article 4
straight baselines primarily for foreign policy reasons. As stated earlier, coastal nations are
obligated to recognize the right of innocent passage within their territorial sea. This right
of innocent passage does not extend to inland waters. Thus, if a coastal nation uses Article
4 closing lines, then it is extending its authority to keep other nations from traveling freely
within their coastal waters.
56 See United States v. California, 381 U.S. 139 (1965); United States v. Louisiana, 394 U.S.
57 United States v. California, 381 U.S. at 168.
method “should be left to the branches of Government responsible for the
formulation and implementation of foreign policy.”58
Figure 1. Norway’s Straight Baselines
Article 3 of the 1958 Convention dictates that the “breadth of the territorial sea”
is measured from a coastal nation’s low-water mark. However, even under a low-
water mark measurement, the 1958 Convention permits certain bodies of water that
would normally qualify as territorial waters (i.e., waters beyond the coastline) to be
treated as inland waters (i.e., waters landward of the coastline). Most of these
“inland water” exceptions under the Convention also are applied in determining a
U.S. coastal state’s SLA boundary,59 and many U.S. coastal states have tried to
capitalize on these exceptions by asserting to the Supreme Court that portions of their
coastlines constitute inland waters. If the Supreme Court determines that a body of
water fits within the definition of inland waters, then the coastline is moved seaward
accordi n gl y. 60
58 United States v. Louisiana, 394 U.S. at 73.
59 As discussed above, Article 4 closing lines cannot be used by U.S. coastal states.
60 In 1986, Congress added the following language to the SLA: “except that any boundary
between a State and the United States under this subchapter or subchapter II of this chapter
which has been or is hereafter fixed by coordinates under a final decree of the United States
Supreme Court shall remain immobilized at the coordinates provided under such decree and
shall not be ambulatory.” 43 U.S.C. § 1301(b). See also Reed, Shore and Sea Boundaries
(Volume 3), p. 378.
Figure 2. Hypothetical Juridical Bay
Bodies of Water That Constitute Inland Waters:
Juridical Bays and Historic Waters
Under the 1958 Convention, a bay may qualify as an inland body of water if it
meets certain measurements.61 Bays meeting the requirements set forth in Article
7(2) of the 1958 Convention are known as juridical bays. To qualify as a juridical
bay, a bay must be “a well-marked indentation whose penetration is in such
proportion to the width of its mouth as to contain landlocked waters and more than
a mere curvature of the coast.” The indentation must be “as large as, or larger than,
that of the semi-circle whose diameter is a line drawn across the mouth of that
indentation.” The closing line drawn between the natural entrance points must not
exceed 24 miles (Figure 262). Waters lying landward of the closing line constitute
inland waters, while those lying seaward are part of the territorial sea. To date, the
Supreme Court has held that Monterey Bay63 and the combined Long Island and
western Block Island Sounds64 constitute juridical bays.
Article 7 of the 1958 Convention also permits historic waters, including historic
bays, to be designated as inland waters. While the Convention clearly states that
historic waters need not comply with the geographic tests required for a juridical bay,
the precise definition the term is not immediately clear. As the 1958 Convention
fails to define historic bays and similar terms, Supreme Court decisions have come
to refer to a study conducted by the United Nations.65 Among other things, this study
61 1958 Convention, art. 7.
62 Skladel, The Coastal Boundaries of Naval Petroleum Reserve, p. 7.
63 United States v. California, 381 U.S. 139, 169, 173 (1965).
64 United States v. Maine, 469 U.S. 504, 526 (1985).
65 U.N. Secretariat, Juridical Regime of Historic Waters, Including Historic Bays, U.N. Doc.
concluded that historic waters is not a term limited to bays, but may also be applied
to other bodies of water, including “straits, archipelagoes and generally all those
waters which can be included in the maritime domain of a State.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has addressed numerous historic water claims.
Alaska, California, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, and
Rhode Island have all asked the Supreme Court to determine whether certain waters
along their coastlines constitute historic waters.66 For waters to be labeled historic,
a coastal nation must have “effectively exercised sovereignty over the area
continuously during a time sufficient to create a usage and have done so under the
general toleration of the community of [nation] States.”67 Three factors are usually
considered in determining whether a body of water is historic: “(1) the exercise of
authority over the area by the claiming nation; (2) the continuity of this exercise of
authority; and (3) the acquiescence of foreign nations.”68 A fourth factor is also
widely used: the “vital interests of the coastal nation, including elements such as
geographical configuration, economic interests, and the requirements of self-
defense.”69 The Supreme Court has held that both Mississippi Sound and Vineyard
Sound constitute historic waters. Other examples, declared administratively, include
Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay.70
By successfully defending a claim that certain waters are historic U.S. waters,
a U.S. coastal state can effectively change the location of its coastline. The new
coastline will be drawn farther offshore so that the historic waters are located on the
landward side of the coastline. Again, this new coastline will constitute the U.S.
Aboriginal Title to the Seabed and Natural Resources
Much attention has been drawn to those maritime disputes between coastal
states and the federal government; however, other maritime disagreements do exist
within U.S. borders.71 Since the early 1980s, certain native tribes of Alaska have
A/CN.4/143 (1962). Hereafter referred to as the U.N. Juridical Regime.
66 United States v. Alaska, 521 U.S. 1 (1997); United States v. California, 381 U.S. 139
(1965), United States v. Florida, 420 U.S. 531 (1975); United States v. Louisiana, 470 U.S.
93 (1985); and United States v. Maine (Rhode Island and New York Boundary Case), 469
U.S. 504 (1985).
67 United States v. Louisiana, 470 U.S. 93, 102 (1985), quoting the U.N. Juridical Regime.
68 United States v. Louisiana, 470 U.S. 93, 101-02 (1985).
69 United States v. Louisiana, 470 U.S. 93, 102 (1985).
70 Report of Gregory E. Maggs, Special Master, United States v. Alaska (Mar. 2004) (No.
71 The federal government has also been involved in maritime disputes with certain islands
that fall under U.S. sovereignty (Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands v. United
tried to enforce an “Indian right of occupancy” to the seabed and ocean off the coast
of Alaska (outer continental shelf).72 After two decades of litigation, it is difficult to
say with certainty whether or not a native group may occupy offshore areas beyond
the territorial sea of Alaska.73
Many coastal nations recognize an indigenous tribe’s pre-existing rights to land
and water.74 This right is known internationally as native, Indian, or aboriginal title.
Aboriginal title arises by virtue of indigenous people using, enjoying, and occupying
an area prior to colonization.
It has long been the policy of the United States to respect and observe the
doctrine of aboriginal title. This policy was first established in Johnson v. McIntosh
when the Supreme Court stated that the federal government and the states hold title
to the lands found within their designated borders, “subject only to the Indian right
of occupancy....”75 The Court went on to explain that this right of occupancy may be
extinguished only by the plain intent76 of Congress.
When assessing whether or not aboriginal title exists, three questions are usually
asked. The first is whether the federal government exercises sovereignty over the
area in question. If so, then the next question is whether Congress has clearly
extinguished aboriginal title to such lands. If not, then it needs to be determined
whether the “claimed aboriginal title existed in fact.”77
States, 399 F.3d 1057 (9th Cir. 2005)).
72 Gambell v. Clark, 746 F.2d 572 (9th Cir. 1984); Amoco Production Company v. Village
of Gambell, 480 U.S. 531 (1987); Gambell v. Hodel, 869 F.2d 1273 (9th Cir. 1989); Eyak
v. Trawler Diane Marie, Inc., 154 F.3d 1090 (9th Cir. 1998) cert. denied 527 U.S. 1003
(1999); Eyak v. Daley, 375 F.3d 1218 (9th Cir. 2004).
73 After the Gambell cases, the law surrounding aboriginal title to offshore areas seemed
settled. The Eyak case that followed brought more confusion. See David J. Bloch,
“Colonizing the Last Frontier,” 29 Am. Indian L. Rev. 1 (2004).
74 Such countries include the United States, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia (Johnson
v. McIntosh, 21 U.S. 543, 584-85 ; Te Runanga o Wharekauri Rekohu Inc. v.
Attorney General  2 NZLR 301; Calder v. Attorney General  SCR 313; Mabo
v. State of Queensland  107 A.L.R. 1).
75 Johnson v. McIntosh, 21 U.S. 543, 584-85 (1823). The Johnson Court explained that
“[the native people] were admitted to be the rightful occupants of the soil, with a legal as
well as just claim to retain possession of it, and to use it according to their own discretion;
but their rights to complete sovereignty as independent nations, were necessarily diminished,
and their power to dispose of the soil at their own will to whomsoever they pleased was
denied by the original fundamental principle that discovery gave exclusive title to those who
made it.” The Supreme Court had addressed aboriginal title earlier, in Fletcher v. Peck, but
the Johnson decision stands out as the case that ultimately defined Indian property rights.
76 Plain intent is needed to extinguish aboriginal title. United States v. Santa Fe Pacific
Railroad Co., 314 U.S. 339, 354 (1941).
77 Bloch, Colonizing the Last Frontier, p. 26. This three-part inquiry was established by the
Congress may extinguish aboriginal title by treaty, purchase, or exercise of
absolute dominion (taking).78 Congress is under no obligation to provide
compensation for abrogating aboriginal title.79 Moreover, once title is extinguished,
all aboriginal rights, except those expressly reserved, are extinguished.
The maritime disputes in Alaska relate to aboriginal title, but not within the
State of Alaska’s border. In enacting the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act,80
Congress expressly extinguished aboriginal title to Alaska’s territorial sea. While this
issue has thus been put to rest, aboriginal rights in the continental shelf adjacent to
Alaska have not.81
In Eyak v. Trawler Diane Marie, the Ninth Circuit considered whether certain
native Alaskan villages held aboriginal title, including “exclusive rights to use,
occupy, possess, hunt, fish, and exploit the waters, and mineral resources,” to the
outer continental shelf.82 The Ninth Circuit held that the “federal paramountcy
doctrine,”83 as established in the 1947 United States v. California Supreme Court
case,84 preempts any claims of aboriginal title to the outer continental shelf.85
The Eyak decision clearly states that all aboriginal title claims to the outer
continental shelf will be barred under the federal paramountcy doctrine. However,
since this decision, the village of Eyak has filed a new claim, asking the court to
confirm “nonexclusive” aboriginal rights.86 On July12, 2004, the Ninth Circuit,
sitting as a whole, ordered the federal district court in Alaska to determine “what
aboriginal rights to fish beyond the three-mile limit, if any, the [native residents of
Supreme Court in United States v. Santa Fe Pacific Railroad Co., 314 U.S. 339, 345-46
(1941). The third question relating to actual aboriginal occupancy is a question of fact and
must be handled as other questions of fact (United States v. Santa Fe Pacific Railroad Co.,
78 United States v. Sante Fe Pacific Railroad Co., 314 U.S. 339, 347 (1941).
79 Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States, 348 U.S. 272, 279 (1955).
80 P. L. 92-203, codified, as amended, at 43 U.S.C. §§ 1601-1629e.
81 Congress failed to expressly extinguish aboriginal title to areas beyond Alaska’s territorial
82 154 F.3d 1090, 1096 (9th Cir. 1998).
83 The federal paramountcy doctrine refers to the federal government’s “paramount power”
to regulate the ocean and its seabed. The federal government, as the Supreme Court
articulated in United States v. California, must have these “paramount rights” to fulfill its
responsibilities to protect its people from wars and to govern international commerce. 332
U.S. 19, 35 (1947).
84 332 U.S. 19 (1947).
85 The Supreme Court denied the Village of Eyak’s petition for Writ of Certiori (appeal)
(527 U.S. 1003 (1999)).
86 In the first Eyak case, the villages were asserting sovereign rights over the outer
continental shelf. Here, the village of Eyak is asserting certain aboriginal rights, such as
hunting and fishing.
the village of Eyak] have.”87 The district court has yet to release an opinion detailing
the aboriginal rights, if any, involved in this issue. Until the district court rules, the
village of Eyak’s aboriginal rights to fish on the outer continental shelf are left
Charting Maritime Boundaries
While this report has focused on many of the legal disputes involved in
determining where to draw a state’s low-water mark, not all coastlines need to be
decided by litigation. Regardless of whether the coastline is determined in or out of
courts, the line must be represented on an official chart (nautical map). As indicated
in Article 3 of the 1958 Convention, maritime zones are measured from the low-
water mark as identified on “large-scale charts officially recognized by the coastal
[nation].” Therefore, the breadth of the U.S. territorial sea is measured from the low-
water mark found on charts recognized by the U.S. government. Prior to 1970, there
was no uniform system for determining “official” maritime boundaries. Instead
federal agencies would construct their own lines without consulting any coordinating
To remedy this lack of uniformity, an Ad Hoc Committee on Delimitation of the
United States Coastline was formed on August 17, 1970.90 The agencies represented
on the Committee included the Departments of State, Commerce, the Interior,
Justice, and Transportation. The Committee’s first task was to review and locate the
entire U.S. coastline.91
On finishing its first review, the Committee saw that its job was not complete.
Due to the ambulatory nature of the U.S. coastline,92 the Committee recognized that
87 Eyak v. Daley, 375 F.3d 1218, 1219 (9th Cir. 2004).
88 The Ninth Circuit ordered that “the district court should assume that the villages’
aboriginal rights, if any, have not been abrogated by the federal paramountcy doctrine or
other federal law.”
89 Reed, Shore and Sea Boundaries (Volume 3), pp. 344-45. Examples of these agency lines
include the Coast Guard line, Census line, Chapman line, and Executive Branch lines.
90 This committee was formed in response to the Secretary of Commerce’s suggestion that
the federal government have a uniform “position on the limits of our inland waters,
territorial sea, and contiguous zone.” Reed, Shore and Sea Boundaries (Volume 3), p. 359.
This Committee still meets on an as-needed basis, and is chaired by the Secretary of State.
Currently, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) is conducting a nationwide review of
the SLA boundary. Thus, the Committee is meeting more regularly. MMS Announces Cape
Cod Boundary Survey Results, available at [http://www.mms.gov/ooc/press/2005/press
91 The Committee, in reviewing the U.S. coastline, must apply the principles of the 1958
Convention. Reed, Shore and Sea Boundaries (Volume 3), p. 360.
92 The “normal erosion and accretion of the shoreline” cause the coastline (or baseline) to
shift. Artificial structures (e.g., jetties, breakwaters, and other beach re-nourishment
structures) may also affect the coastline, thereby affecting offshore boundaries. To ensure
its official coastal lines would shift over time. To keep maritime boundaries up to
date, the Committee developed a system where new coastal lines would be reviewed
first by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).93 After this
initial review, the State Department’s geographer would then comment on the
changes and later submit the proposals to the entire Ad Hoc Committee.94 Once the
entire Committee considered the new proposals, a final decision would be made by
the Committee as to how the official coastal lines should be altered. In those
circumstances where the Supreme Court rules against the federal government’s
position,95 the Committee would incorporate the Court’s ruling in an updated chart.96
Members from the Departments of State, Commerce, the Interior, Justice, and
Transportation all collaborate to ensure that accurate charts are published.97 The
charts issued represent the federal government’s official position on where U.S.
maritime zones are located.98 Any alterations to the “coastline” must go through the
artificial structures do not disrupt coastlines on a regular basis, MMS must review Corps of
Engineers Section 10 permits (e.g., construction of jetties or breakwaters). If a proposed
Section 10 permit alters a maritime boundary, then the Solicitor’s Office is notified and it,
in turn, notifies the Corps. The Corps responds by requesting that the affected state “prepare
a waiver to any extension of the base line resulting from the proposed permitting action.”
Piers cannot be used to extend the coastline. U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Minerals
Management Service, Boundary Development on the Outer Continental Shelf, available at
[http://www.mms.gov/itd/pubs/1999/99-0006.pdf], visited Apr. 7, 2005. Global climate
change could also cause a state’s coastline to shift if sea levels continue to rise. Instead of
extending seaward, waters would move inland, causing a state’s SLA boundary (and federal
waters) to contract.
93 MMS is also involved in determining maritime boundaries. In 1997, MMS and NOAA
entered into a “Memorandum of Understanding to produce, quality assure and maintain”
accurate depictions of the U.S. coastline. See U.S. Dept. of Commerce, National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Admin., Office of Coast Survey — GIS, available at [http://nauticalcharts.
noaa.gov/csdl/ctp/GIStrial.html] visited Apr. 8, 2005. Hereafter referred to as NOAA, Coast
94 NOAA, Coast Survey.
95 The federal government’s position refers to the maritime boundary represented on an
96 Once a coastal line is determined by the Supreme Court, the boundary is “fixed” forever
and cannot change (43 U.S.C. § 1301(b)).
97 The Organic Act of 1807 gave the Office of Coast Survey the authority “to construct and
maintain the nation’s nautical charts.” This agency is a part of the National Ocean Service,
which is under NOAA. All nautical charts are available to the public. National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration, National Ocean Service, Marine Navigation, available at
[http://www.nos.noaa.gov/topics/navops/marinenav/welcome.html], visited Apr. 20, 2005.
98 For coastal management purposes beyond depicting maritime boundaries, a Committee
on National Needs for Coastal Mapping and Charting has found a need to collect more
detailed geographical data on coastal areas, to better coordinate mapping of onshore and
offshore areas, and to make more sophisticated geographical data on coastal zones generally
available through a single web portal. A National Research Council summary of this report
Committee process, with the exception of those maritime boundaries changed by a
Supreme Court decree.
Current Litigation Concerning Inland Waters
Although the legal battles concerning federal-state maritime boundaries have
dwindled, there is currently a case before the Supreme Court. The State of Alaska
is claiming title to three separate areas within the Alexander Archipelago, based in
part upon the theory that these bodies of water constitute inland waters.99 In addition,
Alaska is asserting title to the outer perimeter of the Alexander Archipelago based
on the theory that the area meets the requirements for a juridical bay.100 The Supreme
Court, sitting in original jurisdiction, heard oral arguments on January 5, 2005.101
Current Changes to Federal-State Maritime Boundaries
Changing a federal-state maritime boundary is now rare. Still, the State of
Massachusetts has an application pending to have its maritime border redrawn.102
During the fall of 2004, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) conducted
scientific surveys of the waters within Nantucket Sound. The results indicated that103
certain rock formations seaward of Hyannis were naturally formed; and therefore,
should be considered as valid baseline (or coastline) points. If these new baseline
points are used, the Massachusetts’ SLA boundary would be extended seaward by
about two-and-a-half miles, and would expand Massachusetts’ jurisdiction by twelve
square miles.104 In late February 2005, MMS issued a press release that
may be found at [http://dels.nas.edu/rpt_briefs/coastal_mapping_final.pdf].
99 Petitioner’s Brief 4, Alaska v. United States (No. 128, Orig.).
100 Petitioner’s Brief 4, Alaska v. United States (No. 128, Orig.), p. 6.
101 The transcripts of the oral arguments in Alaska v. United States are available at
[http://www.supremecourtus.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts.html], visited Mar.
102 In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that Nantucket Sound does not qualify as inland waters
(United States v. Maine, 475 U.S. 89). Therefore, portions of Nantucket Sound fall under
federal jurisdiction. Under the SLA, a maritime boundary fixed by a Supreme Court decree
may not be changed (43 U.S.C. § 1301(b)). Thus, it would appear that Massachusetts’
application for a border change should be barred. Massachusetts’ application, however,
involves portions of Nantucket Sound that were not at issue in United States v. Maine.
Therefore, in this instance, Massachusetts’ SLA boundary may be altered.
103 The rock formations are referred to as “Bishop, Clerks, and Bull Rock.” See MMS
104 This new boundary extends state jurisdiction all the way out into an area where Cape
Wind proposes to build its wind farm. Fortunately for Cape Wind, the extended boundary
will only affect “about 10 of its proposed 130 wind turbines.” See Cape Cod Times, State
Jurisdiction in Sound Expands, available at [http://www.capecodonline.com/special/
windfarm/statejurisdiction16.htm], visited Apr. 22, 2005.
acknowledged the survey’s results105 and has published the revised boundary in the
The success and outcome of offshore development depend, in part, on
establishing clear federal-state maritime boundaries within the territorial sea. Though
Congress and the Supreme Court, through the SLA and a series of judicial opinions,
respectively, have addressed many of the legal uncertainties attendant to establishing
maritime boundaries, disputes continue. As new offshore uses (aquaculture and wind
farms) arise and move farther offshore, Congress may see increasing interest in
proposals that seek to establish a uniform approach to governing federal-state
maritime boundary and jurisdiction changes.
105 See MMS Survey.
106 “Availability of Revised North American Datum of 1983 (NAD 83) Outer Continental
Shelf Official Protraction Diagrams,” 70 Fed. Reg. 9104 (Feb. 24, 2005).