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Abandoned Shipwreck Act Guidelines

Part II. Guidelines

G. Providing Public Access to Shipwrecks

Section 4(a) of the Act says that the U.S. Congress intends for the States to provide reasonable access by the public to State-owned shipwrecks and to guarantee recreational exploration of shipwreck sites. Access to publicly-owned shipwrecks (whether federally-owned or State-owned) by the public is beneficial for tourism, public enjoyment and appreciation, and preservation, as well as for recreation. However, increased public access also may cause inadvertent damage to shipwrecks.

The following guidelines are offered to assist the States and Federal agencies in determining what constitutes reasonable public access to shipwrecks under their ownership or control while, at the same time, protecting shipwrecks from inadvertent damage.

Guideline 1: Guarantee recreational exploration of publicly-owned shipwreck sites.

At a minimum, any person should be able to freely and without a license or permit dive on, inspect, study, explore, photograph, measure, record, fish at, or otherwise use and enjoy publicly-owned shipwrecks (including historic shipwrecks and shipwrecks whose historical significance has not yet been evaluated) when the use or activity does not involve disturbing or removing parts or portions of the shipwreck or its immediate environment.

Guideline 2: Establish lists of shipwrecks having recreational value.

Lists of publicly-owned shipwrecks having recreational value should be prepared in cooperation with sport divers, dive clubs, dive boat operators, recreational fishermen, recreational planners, underwater archeologists, and maritime historians. The lists should note the shipwreck's location (including a chart description and coordinates), depth and general bottom conditions, a general description (including any dangers and the shipwreck's condition and historical significance), and indicate whether a license or permit is needed to collect artifacts or other materials.

Guideline 3: Facilitate public access to shipwrecks.

Sport diver access to publicly-owned shipwrecks having recreational value should be facilitated through the placement of marker buoys and anchor moorings and through the distribution of information at dive shops and marinas. Underwater parks or preserves should be created in areas containing shipwrecks that are well preserved and valuable for recreational purposes. Public facilities on and off the shore to support diver access and visitor enjoyment and appreciation should be provided, as appropriate, in underwater parks and preserves.

Guideline 4: Consult with interest groups prior to imposing any restrictions on access.

Prior to imposing any restrictions on public access to shipwrecks, comments should be sought from the various interest groups, the State's historic preservation office and underwater archeology office (or archeology office, in the absence of an underwater archeology office), and appropriate State and Federal agencies about the values and uses of individual shipwrecks (or classes of shipwrecks) and the need to regulate access. When shipwrecks entitled to U.S. sovereignty are involved, the applicable U.S. Government agency should be contacted for instructions on regulating public access to the federally-owned shipwrecks. When other shipwrecks entitled to sovereign immunity are involved, the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs in the U.S. Department of State should be contacted to secure instructions from the applicable flag nation on regulating public access to the foreign-owned shipwrecks.

Guideline 5: Regulate access at few, if any, shipwrecks.

Decisions to limit, monitor or prohibit public access to shipwrecks should be made on a case by case basis; be practical, and be fairly administered. In general, public access to shipwrecks in State waters should be regulated only when:

(a) A shipwreck site presents an unacceptable risk to human safety and the visitor does not assume full responsibility for his or her safety;

(b) A shipwreck is extremely fragile and in danger of collapsing;

(c) A shipwreck is suffering extensive deterioration or attrition due to prior unregulated access;

(d) A permittee, licensee or contractor who is recovering a shipwreck under a valid permit, license or contract requests that access be regulated during the term of the permit, license or contract; or

(e) A shipwreck is entitled to sovereign immunity and the applicable Federal Government agency (for U.S. flag vessels) or foreign nation (for foreign flag vessels) provides instructions on regulating public access to the shipwreck. In the absence of specific instructions from the applicable sovereign, under customary international law, access by any U.S. national to shipwrecks entitled to sovereign immunity is prohibited. When a sovereign grants permission, it generally limits access to named individuals for specified purposes. As a matter of policy, permission generally is not given to access (or salvage) sunken warships that contain the remains of deceased service personnel or explosive material.

Guideline 6: Provide adequate public notice of restrictions.

Once a decision has been made to limit, monitor or prohibit access to a particular shipwreck, the public should be provided adequate notice of the restrictions. Appropriate methods to give public notice would include, but not be limited to, marking restrictions on nautical charts; posting notices on the shipwreck and at marinas and dive shops; notifying dive boat operators; and publishing restrictions in "Notice to Mariners," diver publications and local newspapers. A standard method of giving public notice should be adopted.

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