With an estimated three million shipwrecks littering the ocean floor, chances of stumbling across one during your routine deep-sea scuba dive are higher than you might think. So, what should you do if you find a shipwrecked treasure trove, and can you keep the booty?
The laws surrounding the discovery of shipwrecks, and who’s entitled to the cash, are complicated and entirely dependent on where the ship is found.
The first step, however, involves informing the correct authorities so the site can be properly investigated by marine archaeologists to determine historical significance. Once jurisdiction is established for the site, then two maritime laws can be applied.
The law of finds
Your best chance of being able to keep any monetary value from a shipwreck is by arguing "finders keepers, losers weepers", more officially known as the law of finds.
This law states the finder of valuable property to be entitled to the full monetary worth, so long as the property doesn’t have a declared owner. In the case of a shipwreck, it should have been abandoned for a number of years, and the owner must not be actively searching for it.
The law of salvage
When attempting to establish ownership over the property, both the law of finds and the law of salvage can be pleaded simultaneously. If the law of finds is dismissed, the law of salvage will be the next best thing.
If the owner of the vessel comes forward, thus negating the law of finds, you still might be entitled to a percentage of that sweet sweet cash. The law of salvage states that the salvor is working to retrieve lost goods on behalf of the owner. To repay the salvor for the retrieval, they can be compensated a percentage of the ship’s value.
The amount the salvor is awarded depends on the amount of risk they undertook, how difficult the recovery was, and the value of the goods. This law also applies to ships that are in the process of sinking, whereby the salvor is able to help the ship and crew.
While these maritime laws will apply to vessels found in waters without a distinct jurisdiction, each country will have its own laws regarding shipwrecks discovered in areas close to their land. Generally, countries will state claim on any wreckages found in their water.
In the US, laws can vary dependent on state. Under the 1987 Abandoned Shipwreck Act, US states have ownership of any shipwreck found up to three miles off the coastline, meaning you won’t receive any financial gain for these finds.
Some states, like Florida, have even stricter jurisdiction on their coastlines. The Florida Historical Resources Act extends jurisdictions to 10 miles out to sea, and includes lakes and rivers, so anything found remotely near Florida is automatically state-owned.
The Ocean Dumping Act, also known as the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA), predominantly refers to the illegality of dumping things unlikely to biodegrade into the ocean, but it also covers archaeological finds.
The removal of artefacts or disturbance of a shipwreck site, without the proper permits, is illegal under this law. In short, if you find anything resembling a shipwreck along the US coast, don’t touch it and alert the Coast Guard.
Additionally, if a wreckage found anywhere in the world is a US military ship, the 2004 Sunken Military Craft Act states the ship automatically belongs to the US.
So, you could stand to make a bit of cash by becoming a law-abiding, treasure-hunting pirate, but more importantly, you might just make a significant historical discovery.