[NPS Arrowhead] U.S. Dept. of Interior National Park Service Archeology Program
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preserving a submerged legacy
(photo) NPS divers map wreck site at Dry Tortugas National Park.  

Our oceans, lakes, and rivers hold a rich archive of where we've been as a people. Anasazi ruins deep beneath the waters of Lake Powell, on the Utah-Arizona border … former rivers now submerged off the Florida coast, as old as the continent's first inhabitants who lived along their shores … the remains of sunken ships, airplanes, harbors, docks, and wharves from all eras of prehistory and history.

This heritage is fading fast, often subject to salvage that ignores the historical importance of sites and deterioration from marine organisms and natural processes. State and federal agencies and their partners, including many sport divers with a passion for maritime history, are working to locate, document, and preserve this underwater cultural heritage.

Government agencies rely on a diverse set of management authorities to preserve and protect submerged cultural resources under their jurisdiction or control. The Abandoned Shipwreck Act is among the most important because it establishes government ownership over most abandoned shipwrecks in our rivers, lakes and seabed, and protects the shipwrecks from salvage. The statute establishes new policies and, with the Abandoned Shipwreck Act Guidelines, provides direction to the State, Tribal, and Federal owners for comprehensive management that enhances and protects the resources while fostering partnerships and recreational access.

The 50 States, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories own and manage abandoned shipwrecks and other submerged cultural resources in their waters. Submerged resources programs differ widely among the States and no two programs are alike. Only a few States have a shipwreck law per se. Most States rely on general laws about antiquities, government property, submerged lands, or other things as the authority for managing submerged cultural resources.

Since the 1970s, discoveries of spectacular and historically significant shipwrecks have captured the attention of the world. The slave ship Henrietta Marie … the luxury liner RMS Titanic … the pirate ship Whydah … the steamship Central America … and ships of exploration, Spanish Galleons and sunken warships too numerous to name. This is our collective heritage that should not be subject to salvage. Fortunately, laws have been enacted to protect entire classes of sunken vessels, and agreements have been negotiated to protect specific sites and artifact collections. In addition, Federal admiralty courts have increasingly considered the historical importance of sites and the rights of sovereigns in making salvage awards and determining ownership. International charters and conventions also have been issued with scientific principles and standards on the protection of underwater cultural heritage. These initiatives and more in the making promise hope for preservation of our submerged heritage.