Archaeologists have long cast a skeptical eye at the private groups that locate and claim shipwrecks in international waters. At such wreck sites, they say, gathering scientific knowledge takes a distant second place to gathering profits by selling off the booty, like Odyssey Marine Exploration’s latest haul, estimated at $500 million.
Now they have some evidence. Archeology magazine published an article piece flagged by The Wall Street Journal that looks closer at two recent discoveries that “illustrate the contrast between scholarly and private recoveries.” One site, managed by an archaeologist for Texas A. & M. University, yielded “26 articles and 6 archaeological reports.” An Odyssey-run project off the coast of Georgia, by contrast, has so far yielded a book. The company has also promised to publish five papers online.
It links to this article in Archaeology (which I see Andie linked to in my absence!):
Just how much of an impact has the treasure-hunting industry had on the world's underwater sites? It's a difficult question to answer because no one has ever compiled statistics on the total number of sites worldwide and the number that have been damaged or disturbed by treasure hunters. But archaeologist Don Keith, president of the Ships of Discovery research institute at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History, thinks that the movement of treasure hunters into deeper waters is a very worrying sign. Indeed, one study that he and colleague Toni Carrell completed suggests that treasure seekers have so depleted shallow-water wrecks that they are now increasingly forced to target ships lying far below the surface. It's a situation, explains Keith, that parallels the excesses of the oil industry. Just as in oil prospecting, once you have found all the easy-to-reach fields, you have to spend a lot more money to find the difficult, hard-to-work ones.
It's different from terrestrial sites because sites are on land that someone owns, be it a governmental entity or a private person. The laws of individual countries determine ownership. In international waters, ownership is. . . .murky (pardon the pun). My maritime salvage law knowledge is limited, but I think that most wrecks are considered finders keepers. I thought I did a post on something similar a while back, but I can't find it. I know I did some research for it somewhere, which I shall find and post later. In the meantime, there's this article here:
The key issue is whether the owner of the vessel—or an insurer that asserts ownership through subrogation—has abandoned the wreck and its cargo. Plaintiffs seeking title to a wreck or a preliminary injunction for sole exploration rights usually describe the vessel as “wrecked and abandoned.” Abandonment in the maritime salvage context has been defined as the “act of leaving or deserting such property by those who were in charge of it, without hope on their part of recovering it and without the intention of returning to it.” However, the mere fact that property is lost at sea does not divest the owner of title.
I imagine only something like the International Whaling Commission would ever curtail this sort of thing in international waters. Signatory countries would presumably allow that to supersede their internal laws.
UPDATE: Well, this is the second time around typing this, I had an update all done, hit Post, came back later, and it wasn't even in Draft form, saved, nothing. Thanks, Blogger!
ANYWAY. . . .I did, in fact, remember correctly (thanks, Kerry!): Someone had pointed to an article (since dislocated from its original link) about locals pilfering stuff that had washed ashore from a listing cargo ship, and how they were prosecuted for stealing. It was really just restricted to British law (see also this and this) so not really applicable. But, there you go.
As I copy and save to Notepad JUST IN CASE.