[NPS Arrowhead] U.S. Dept. of Interior National Park Service Archeology Program
Quick Menu Features
* Sitemap * Home

Abandoned Shipwreck Act Guidelines

Part I. Definitions

As used for purposes of these guidelines:

Abandoned shipwreck means any shipwreck to which title voluntarily has been given up by the owner with the intent of never claiming a right or interest in the future and without vesting ownership in any other person. By not taking any action after a wreck incident either to mark and subsequently remove the wrecked vessel and its cargo or to provide legal notice of abandonment to the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as is required under provisions in the Rivers and Harbors Act (33 U.S.C. 409), an owner shows intent to give up title. Such shipwrecks ordinarily are treated as being abandoned after the expiration of 30 days from the sinking.

(a) When the owner of a sunken vessel is paid the full value of the vessel (such as receiving payment from an insurance underwriter) the shipwreck is not considered to be abandoned. In such cases, title to the wrecked vessel is passed to the party who paid the owner.
(b) Although a sunken warship or other vessel entitled to sovereign immunity often appears to have been abandoned by the flag nation, regardless of its location, it remains the property of the nation to which it belonged at the time of sinking unless that nation has taken formal action to abandon it or to transfer title to another party. Any cargo aboard a vessel entitled to sovereign immunity also generally remains the property of the flag nation unless the cargo had earlier been unlawfully captured by that nation. In such a situation, title to the cargo remains in the nation from which it had been captured. Shipwrecks entitled to sovereign immunity are wrecks of warships and other vessels (such as privately owned vessels chartered or otherwise appropriated by a sovereign nation for military purposes) used only on government non-commercial service at the time of sinking. Examples of vessels entitled to sovereign immunity would include, but not be limited to, U.S. battleships and German U-boats from World War II, Confederate gunboats and Union ironclads from the Civil War, and British frigates and Colonial privateers from the Revolutionary War.

Act means the Abandoned Shipwreck Act (43 U.S.C. 2101-2106).

Embedded as defined in the Act means firmly affixed in the submerged lands or in coralline formations such that the use of tools of excavation is required in order to move the bottom sediments to gain access to the shipwreck, its cargo, and any part thereof. Tools of excavation would include, but not be limited to, hydraulic, pneumatic, or mechanical dredges; explosives; propeller wash deflectors; air lifts; blowtorches; induction equipment; chemicals; and mechanical tools used to remove or displace bottom sediments or coralline formations to gain access to shipwrecks.

Historic shipwreck means a shipwreck that is listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. 2

Indian lands as defined in the Act has the same meaning given the term in the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (16 U.S.C. 470bb), meaning lands of Indian tribes, or Indian individuals, which are either held in trust by the United States or subject to a restriction against alienation imposed by the United States, except for any subsurface interests in lands not owned or controlled by an Indian tribe or an Indian individual.

Indian tribe as defined in the Act has the same meaning given the term in the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (16 U.S.C. 470bb), meaning any Indian tribe, band, nation, or other organized group or community, including any Alaska Native village or regional or village corporation as defined in, or established pursuant to, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (85 Stat. 688).

National Register as defined in the Act means the National Register of Historic Places maintained by the Secretary of the Interior under section 101 of the National Historic Preservation Act (16 U.S.C. 470a).

Non-historic shipwreck means a shipwreck that is not historic. When a question exists as to the historical significance of a shipwreck that is not listed in or determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, any person may make a request to the Secretary of the Interior for a written determination of the shipwreck's eligibility for inclusion in the National Register. 3

Public lands as defined in the Act has the same meaning given the term in the Archaeological Resource Protection Act (16 U.S.C. 470bb), meaning:

(a) Lands that are owned and administered by the United States as part of the national park system, the national wildlife refuge system, or the national forest system; and
(b) All other lands the fee title to which is held by the United States, except lands on the outer continental shelf, lands under the jurisdiction of the Smithsonian Institution, and Indian lands.

Shipwreck as defined in the Act means a vessel or wreck, its cargo, and other contents. The vessel or wreck may be intact or broken into pieces scattered on or embedded in the submerged lands or in coralline formations. A vessel or wreck includes, but is not limited to, its hull, apparel, armaments, cargo, and other contents. Isolated artifacts and materials not in association with a wrecked vessel, whether intact or broken and scattered or embedded, do not fit the definition of a shipwreck.

State as defined in the Act means a State of the United States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Submerged lands as defined in the Act means the lands that are "lands beneath navigable waters," as defined in section 2 of the Submerged Lands Act (43 U.S.C. 1301); lands of Puerto Rico, as described in section 8 of the Act of March 2, 1917, as amended (48 U.S.C. 749); lands of Guam, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa, as described in section 1 of Public Law 93-435 (48 U.S.C. 1705); and lands of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, as described in section 801 of Public Law 94-241 (48 U.S.C. 1681).

(a) Under the Submerged Lands Act, "lands beneath navigable waters" means:

(1) Lands covered by nontidal waters that were navigable at the time the State either became a member of the Union or acquired sovereignty over the lands and waters;

(2) Lands permanently or periodically covered by tidal waters from the mean high tide line seaward to a line three geographical miles from the coastline (except for the Gulf of Mexico where it extends three marine leagues); and

(3) Filled in, made, or reclaimed lands that formerly were defined as lands beneath navigable waters.

(b) Notwithstanding the special rights of Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico in regard to submerged lands seaward to a line three marine leagues from the coastline, under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, the United States asserts sovereignty and title only to qualifying abandoned shipwrecks located within, but not beyond, three geographical miles from the coastline. The Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries has stated that Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico are to exercise jurisdiction over abandoned shipwrecks beyond three geographical miles, but within three marine leagues, from the coastline in a manner consistent with international law principles (U.S. House of Representatives Report No. 100-514, Pt. 2, p. 5).
(c) Examples of submerged lands to which the Abandoned Shipwreck Act applies would include, but not be limited to, the bottomlands of navigable inland waters (such as rivers and lakes), tidal and offshore marine waters (such as sounds, bays, and gulfs) seaward to a line three geographical miles from the coastline, and lands that formerly were navigable but have since been filled in, made or reclaimed (such as former river beds where courses have meandered or been filled in and former harbor areas that have been reclaimed to create non submerged land). However, abandoned shipwrecks embedded in formerly submerged lands would, under common law, belong to the owner of the land.

2 Under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, in order for the United States to assert title to any abandoned shipwreck located on (i.e., not embedded in) a State's submerged lands, the shipwreck must be listed in or determined eligible by the Secretary of the Interior for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Any abandoned shipwreck embedded either in a State's submerged lands or in coralline formations protected by a State on its submerged land does not have to be listed in or determined eligible by the Secretary of the Interior for listing in the National Register in order for the United States to assert title to it under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act.

3 Procedures for requesting determinations of eligibility are contained in regulations at 36 CFR Part 63. Criteria for evaluation are found in regulations at 36 CFR Part 60. National Register Bulletins entitled "How to Complete the National Register Form," "How to Complete the National Register Multiple Property Documentation Form," and "Nominating Historic Vessels and Shipwrecks to the National Register of Historic Places," provide advice on preparing National Register forms. Copies of the regulations and bulletins may be obtained by writing to the National Register of Historic Places, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street, NW, Washington, DC 20240.

<< back   next >>

MJB/EJL