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Abandoned Shipwreck Act Guidelines

Part II. Guidelines

D. Surveying and Identifying Shipwrecks

Section 6(b) of the Act requires that adequate notice be given to the public of the location of any shipwreck to which title is asserted under the Act. The purpose of providing public notice is to ensure that sport divers, dive boat operators, commercial and recreational fishermen, operators of trawlers and dredgers, and others know which shipwrecks are historically significant. To comply with this requirement, the States and Federal agencies should actively work to develop a detailed understanding of the number, nature, location, and historical significance of shipwrecks in or on their submerged lands. Such an understanding is possible only through a systematic survey of submerged lands and identification of shipwrecks.

The following guidelines are offered to assist the States and Federal agencies in surveying for and identifying shipwrecks located in or on submerged lands under their ownership or control.

Guideline 1: Prepare an archeological assessment for the survey area.

Prior to conducting the field survey, underwater archeologists and maritime historians should assess the potential for and predict the locations of shipwrecks that may be present in the area to be surveyed.

(a) Assessments should be based on available primary and secondary sources about shipwrecks as well as wrecked vessels that were salvaged or refloated. Information about the presence of shipwrecks should be solicited from sport divers, dive clubs, charter boat operators, commercial salvors, fishermen, marine surveyors, local residents, and other knowledgeable individuals. Records of the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should be examined for evidence of abandoned shipwrecks. Annual reports and records of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on ports, harbors and waterways should be examined for evidence of prior dredging, filling and channel modification that may have damaged or destroyed shipwrecks. Reports (prepared for the Minerals Management Service, U.S. Department of the Interior) about the potential for shipwrecks and other historic properties on the outer continental shelf also should be examined.

(b) Assessments should identify navigational hazards (such as submerged outcrops), climatological factors (such as hurricanes) and historical events (such as naval engagements) that may have caused vessels to founder or wreck. Where individual shipwreck sites are known or suspected, the assessment should summarize the vessel's structural features, the wreck incident, any salvage operations, and any prior archeological surveys or excavations. The approximate or known, verified location of the shipwreck should be plotted on nautical charts to determine areas that should be surveyed.

Guideline 2: Prioritize surveys.

Initially, surveys should be focused primarily in areas where shipwrecks are known or expected to be found. In addition, priority should be given to areas subject to high visitor use, dredging, dumping, trawling, development, natural degradation, siltation, and other activities that may damage shipwrecks or make them inaccessible. Once these areas are surveyed, future survey work should be focused in areas known to have been used during periods of exploration and colonization, but where there is little historical documentation about shipwrecks. When the archeological assessment indicates that no shipwrecks are known or expected to have occurred in a given area, the area should be assigned a low priority for survey until new information indicates otherwise.

Guideline 3: Coordinate archival research and field survey efforts with other State and Federal agencies.

To the extent possible, archival research and field surveys should be coordinated and conducted jointly with those being undertaken or authorized by other State and Federal agencies that have responsibilities for contiguous submerged lands. At a minimum, the results of archival research and field surveys should be shared with those State and Federal agencies. In addition, archival research and field surveys should be coordinated with and the results provided to the State's historic preservation office and underwater archeology office (or archeology office, in the absence of an underwater archeology office) so that information on historic shipwrecks may be included in the State's inventory of historic properties and the State's comprehensive historic preservation plan.

Guideline 4: Use scientific methods and techniques to conduct field surveys.

Field surveys to locate shipwreck sites should employ scientific methods and techniques. Magnetometers, side-scan sonar, sub-bottom profilers, and remotely operated vehicles often can provide cost effective coverage for deep water sites. Surveys should be conducted systematically, with sufficiently close lane spacing to provide accurate, detailed coverage of an area. Surveys should be conducted by a team that includes, at a minimum, persons trained in the conduct of marine surveys, the use of remote sensing equipment, and the examination and analysis of remote sensing readings for the purpose of identifying shipwrecks. All tapes, equipment readings, field notebooks, and logs generated during surveys should be collated and archivally saved for future study. Reports should be prepared and published that describe the areas surveyed, survey methods used and the results.

Guideline 5: Record shipwreck locations.

Areas surveyed should be recorded using accurate positioning systems to determine wreck locations. The location of each shipwreck located during the survey should be recorded on a map by using a standard coordinate system (such as Universal Transverse Mercator grid, Loran C, latitude and longitude, or compass bearings).

Guideline 6: Ground-truth shipwrecks and anomalies using non-destructive methods.

All shipwrecks and unverified anomalies located during a remote sensing survey should be ground-truthed through sea-bottom inspection--either by remotely operated vehicle or by divers. Shipwrecks should be examined to determine the nature, extent and integrity of the wrecked vessel, surviving cargo, and associated scattered wreckage, and to locate any visible human remains. Shipwrecks should be examined in as non-destructive and non-disturbing a manner as possible. Determinations of a shipwreck's type, age, condition and, when possible, specific identity should be made without test excavations or removal of artifacts or other materials. When test excavations are necessary or artifacts or other materials must be removed (such as when the shipwreck is embedded or encrusted), the amount to be excavated or removed should be as limited as possible to make evaluations, and be done using archeological methods. This is particularly important in cases where historical value is suspected. Any artifacts or other materials recovered from historic shipwrecks should be conserved by a nautical conservator.

Guideline 7: Provide for the treatment of human remains in shipwrecks.

To the extent possible, human remains in shipwrecks should be left in place as burials at sea. However, when remains (whether of known or unknown persons and whether intact or decomposed) are being disturbed by unavoidable or uncontrollable human activity, they should be removed and appropriately disposed of. Where the remains are of known individuals, a reasonable effort should be made to contact relatives of the deceased to discuss the removal and disposition of the remains. Until human remains are removed, activities that would disturb them should be prohibited.

Guideline 8: Confirm the abandonment of shipwrecks.

When there is reason to believe that a shipwreck may not be abandoned, prior to assuming title or taking any action that would affect the shipwreck, steps should be taken to confirm that the shipwreck is abandoned.

(a) Vessels grounded or sunk in navigable waters of the United States are subject to provisions in the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 (33 U.S.C. 409). When a shipwreck is thought to have wrecked after enactment of this statute, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should be contacted to determine if the owner of the wrecked vessel provided legal notice of abandonment in accordance with that Act.

(b) When a shipwreck is thought to be a U.S. or Confederate warship or other vessel entitled to U.S. sovereignty, the Office of the Judge Advocate General, U.S. Department of the Navy, and the General Services Administration should be contacted for assistance in determining proper ownership.

(c) When a shipwreck is thought to be a foreign flag warship or other foreign flag vessel entitled to sovereign immunity, the Bureau of Oceans and lnternational Environmental and Scientific Affairs, U.S. Department of State, should be contacted for assistance in determining proper ownership. (Under customary international law, any contact with other nations about their sunken warships or other vessels is through the U.S. Department of State.)

(d) When a shipwreck is not abandoned, the title holder should be contacted concerning the management and disposition of the wrecked vessel, its cargo, and other contents.

Guideline 9: Provide adequate public notice of the locations of shipwreck sites.

The Act requires that the public be given adequate notice of the location of any shipwreck to which title is asserted under section 6 of the Act. At a minimum, the public should be provided with the names and locations of shipwrecks identified during field surveys as well as information on whether the shipwrecks are historic or non-historic. Appropriate methods of giving public notice would include, but not be limited to, publishing notices in local newspapers, diver publications, and the Federal Register; posting notices at marinas and dive shops; marking nautical charts; and placing signs at shipwreck sites. When there is reason to believe that disclosure of the exact location (such as Loran coordinates) of a particular historic shipwreck would lead to vandalism, pilferage, or other damage to the site, locational information of a more general nature should be given for that site. However, under the Act, some locational information must be given. In such situations, the level of specificity of the information given should be determined on a case by case basis and should reduce the likelihood of the anticipated damage to the particular historic shipwreck. To withhold from the public even general locational information on shipwrecks would be inconsistent with the Act and the "Abandoned Shipwreck Act Guidelines."

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