Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law


Journal Staff

First Page



The United States brought injunction and trespass claims in the federal district court against three private persons to prevent the unauthorized construction of artificial islands atop several submerged coral reefs located about four and one-half miles off the southeast coast of Florida. These reefs were composed of the skeletal remains of coral organisms and lay at a depth of 600 feet. The reefs continued to grow laterally, but had reached their maximum height and were completely submerged at all times except at low tide when their highest projections were momentarily visible. The reef area, which harbored countless varieties of marine life and was used extensively both for commercial and sport fishing and for navigation, was included within the Department of Interior's proposed Biscayne National Monument. Both defendant Louis M. Ray, a Louisiana resident; and co-defendant-intervenor, Atlantis Development Corporation, Ltd., a Bahamian corporation, sought to establish independent sovereign states by constructing artificial islands on the reefs. Both parties proposed to commercialize the islands by selling ocean frontage; additionally, Atlantis intended to operate a gambling casino and charter a bank with accounts analogous to secret Swiss bank accounts. The government argued that the submerged reefs--a natural resource of the continental shelf--were subject to the exclusive jurisdiction and control of the United States under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and the 1958 Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf. Therefore, contended the government, the defendants' drilling and dredging activities constituted a trespass on government property and should be enjoined. The government argued further that the erection of an artificial island without authorization by the Secretary of the Army violated the Outer Continental Shelf Land Act and, therefore, should be enjoined. The defendants contended that the reefs were res nullius islands amenable to occupation, control, and use, and that they were therefore subject to a lawful appropriation and a valid claim of sovereignty under international law. The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida granted the injunction, but denied the trespass claim. The court held that submerged offshore reefs on the seabed of the continental shelf are not islands amenable to a claim of sovereignty but are natural resources of the United States; and in the absence of the required permit, construction activities on the reefs are unlawful. But where the United States has neither claimed title to nor taken actual possession of the reefs, common law trespass "quare clausum fregit" will not lie.