What Are “Navigable Waters”?


According to this 11th Circuit case, “a waterway is navigable for admiralty jurisdiction purposes if, in its present state, it is capable of supporting commercial activity.”

This case dealt with a dispute over salvage of ancient sunken logs, which, interestingly, are used to produce expensive furniture, flooring, and even musical instruments.   The plaintiff, Aqua Log, is a company that discovers and sells these valuable logs.  Aqua Log found several such logs in a river system in the State of Georgia, and claimed legal ownership of them.

Aqua Log filed an in rem action in district court for a salvage award , or in the alternative, an award of title to the logs under the American Law of Finds.  The State of Georgia obtained a summary judgment on the basis that the court lacked admiralty jurisdiction because the subject river was not “navigable.”  The court reasoned that a navigable waterway exists only if “there is evidence of present or potential commercial activity on the waterway.”  Aqua Log appealed.

The 11th Circuit reversed, holding that the test is whether the waterway is “capable” for commercial activity, not whether such use is actually present (or potentially present).  The court reasoned that “finding admiralty jurisdiction when a waterway is capable of supporting commercial activity creates a climate conducive to commercial maritime activity.”  The court reasoned further that this test for “navigable waters” fosters predictability, and finds support in various other federal circuits.

Read more at:

Aqua Log v. Lost & Abandoned Pre-Cut Logs & Rafts, 709 F. 3d 1055 (11th Cir. 2013)

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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