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Federal-State Maritime Boundary Issues

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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 Constitution.

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.


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