Can the Coast Guard Seize a Vessel in International Waters?

The U.S. Coast Guard just made the largest cocaine seizure in maritime history, more than 26,000 pounds, when it intercepted a trawler registered to Belize 1,500 miles south of San Diego. Why does the United States have the authority to seize a foreign ship that is in international waters?

Because it was full of cocaine. Since the early ‘80s, the Coast Guard, which is a division of the Department of Transportation and the primary maritime law enforcement agency of the United States, has been engaged in missions specifically to intercept drug smugglers on coastal waters. Under federal law, the Coast Guard’s mandate includes arresting traffickers even if they are on the high seas–that is, far outside any country’s territorial boundaries. Toward this effort the United States has cooperative agreements with many other nations to intercept drug activity. And several U.S. federal agencies, including the Department of Defense and the Customs Service, are charged with monitoring possible drug trafficking far outside our borders. In this case, the trawler SvesdaMaru raised suspicions of a customs’ plane when it appeared to be a fishing vessel that lacked operable fishing equipment. A Navy frigate was then sent to investigate. Because Defense personnel are prohibited from directly engaging in law enforcement activities, the ship had on it a Coast Guard law enforcement detachment. When a suspicious vessel is identified at sea, the Coast Guard notifies the State Department, which then gets permission from the vessel’s flag nation for the Coast Guard to board. (In the rare instances when permission is denied, the Coast Guard will generally monitor the vessel as it approaches U.S. territory.) In this case, the Coast Guard boarded the SvesdaMaru and spent five days searching for drugs, which they eventually discovered in the space below the fishing holds. The trawler was brought to San Diego and the Russian and Ukrainian crew was jailed on drug smuggling charges.

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