Ships are required under maritime law to respond to ships in distress, said Jim Walker, a Miami-based maritime lawyer.
The duty to save an abandoned ship rests with the ship’s captain, who “has both a moral and a legal obligation to help,” he said.
There are typically three or four of these rescues every year, some of which involve migrants, Walker said.
“Often there is no real ‘rescue’ of foreign immigrants at sea because the cruise ship will call the USCG who will pick them up and then return them to their home country,” Walker said in an email, referring to the Coast Guard. “It is not so much a ‘rescue’ as an ‘interception’ at sea.”
In some cases, he said, a ship’s captain or his employer could face criminal charges for ignoring a call for help.
In 2012, Princess Cruises was taken to court after one of its cruise ships, the Star Princess, failed to help a disabled fishing vessel that had been adrift for days when it was spotted by crew members and passengers. Two of the people on board the fishing boat died.
The cruise industry has come under fire during the coronavirus pandemic, especially at the start of the epidemic, as passengers and crew were trapped on ships where the virus spread rapidly.