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After the recent Oceangate Titan submersible disaster, much attention has been drawn to the fact that there was no requirement for licensing or certification, due to operating in international waters. It has been said that Oceangate operated in a "regulatory no man's land" and that the results of an investigation may be of limited value, since no government has the jurisdiction to implement practical changes in the rules.

I imagine that there are ways to regulate such activities. For instance, countries can make it illegal for a ship offering unlicensed deep-sea exploration tours to dock in its ports. (Of course, this can be circumvented by using a different country as a starting point). Another measure might be to "sanction" a company, i.e. to prohibit the selling of parts or technology to a company offering uncertified ocean tours, which could be effective if most of the world's developed countries were on board.

However, I say all this as someone who knows nothing of the relevant laws/treaties/practices. What do experts on this subject think? For example, do you think that the results of an investigation into the Titan disaster could lead to practical changes?

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  • Who would you suggest pays for the cost of this regulation? And wouldn't the many be invested much better into protecting pedestrians in road traffic? There have been several cases in the UK where some rich guy's employee died because a small aircraft fell into the sea, and nobody cares. Wouldn't you regulate that first?
    – gnasher729
    Jul 8, 2023 at 23:12

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Let's start with the bottom:

For example, do you think that the results of an investigation into the Titan disaster could lead to practical changes?

Yes, but it will depend on who does the investigation: The police or the responsive maritime safety board (the National Transportation Safety Board in the US). The police can present charges e.g. for negligent manslaughter, but the Transportation Safety Board cannot. Their job is to present ideas on how to improve the security of transportation, not to apportion blame.

there was no requirement for licensing or certification, due to operating in international waters.

I would contest that. It is true that the open ocean is no-mans-land and you can do whatever you want there, unless it is against international law. And there are international regulations regulating the safety of shipping anywhere on the world. The must important such regulation is called SOLAS (International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea). And all vessels need to adhere to it, at least in as far as the rules apply to them. The "flag state" is responsible that any vessel flying its flag are in compliance with these regulations.

Honestly, I'm no SOLAS expert, so I don't know what happens if a vessel doesn't comply to it. It is probably true that they won't be allowed to enter or leave a port if the non-compliance in any point is detected.

Interesting fact: The first version of the SOLAS convention was established as a result of the Titanic disaster. Yet still people die as a result of her sinking, even 111 years after the fact...

The "flag state" is the state whichever flag the vessel flies. In the case of the Titan, this appears to be the US. So the US can indeed enforce the operator is in compliance with any safety regulations. Also, anyone on board a vessel is subject to the jurisdiction of said flag. So on board the Titan (and it's mother ship) the US jurisdiction is applicable. That means that the US police can indeed start an investigation and charge someone for manslaughter. Of course, as always, they can only charge living people. And the heirs of the deceased may sue the operator in the US.

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The assumption is incorrect

All merchant vessels (which includes any vessel carrying paying passengers) is subject to the SOLAS convention (Safety of Life at Sea) ratified by 167 states including the United States and Canada. Most of the states that haven’t ratified are landlocked.

While this is not directly applicable to the submersible, as equipment carried on a covered vessel, it’s up to the flag state to decide if this equipment met the standards. One imagines they will look closer in future.

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