Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987

The Abandoned Shipwreck Act (ASA) was signed into law on April 28, 1988. ASA aims to protect historic shipwrecks in United States waters from treasure hunters and unauthorized salvagers.

Why was the Abandoned Shipwreck Act passed?
Before ASA, state governments used the Submerged Lands Act of 1953 to claim title to and control over abandoned shipwrecks on state submerged lands, and by the 1980s over half had enacted laws to manage these resources. Federal admiralty courts also claimed jurisdiction over abandoned shipwrecks. They treated shipwrecks as commodities in marine peril that needed to be returned to commerce. When these shipwrecks were salvaged, however, the scientific information they held for history and archeology was lost or damaged. Some states won claims to title and management authority over shipwrecks that were submerged but on state lands. The resulting legal uncertainty, and the need to protect these irreplaceable cultural resources from treasure hunting and salvage, led Congress to pass ASA.

What did the Abandoned Shipwreck Act do?
ASA establishes Federal government ownership over most abandoned shipwrecks in the nation's rivers and lakes, and in the ocean to a distance of three miles from shore. Under the Act, the U.S. Government asserted title to three categories of abandoned shipwrecks: abandoned shipwrecks embedded in a state's submerged lands; abandoned shipwrecks embedded in coralline formations protected by a state on its submerged lands; and abandoned shipwrecks located on a state's submerged lands and included in or determined eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.

Upon asserting title, the U.S. Government transferred its title the government entity that owned the submerged lands containing the shipwrecks. As a result, state governments have title to shipwrecks located on state lands, the U.S. Government has title to shipwrecks located on Federal lands, and Indian tribes have title to shipwrecks located on Indian lands. The U.S. Government, however, continues to hold title to sunken U.S. warships and other shipwrecks entitled to Sovereign Immunity, no matter where the vessels are located. Such vessels are not affected by the statute.

One important provision of ASA is that the laws of salvage and finds do not apply to abandoned shipwrecks claimed by the government under the Act. It removes those shipwrecks from the jurisdiction of Federal Admiralty Court, such that the wrecks, their cargo and content are no longer treated as commodities lost at sea and in need of salvage. For archeology, it means that shipwrecks are treated as historically and scientifically valuable.

What is the significance and impact of ASA?
ASA has helped to create clarity and consistency over ownership and regulatory control over abandoned shipwrecks. It affirms the authority of state governments to claim and manage abandoned shipwrecks on state submerged lands. The law also addresses rights of public access. It specifies that shipwrecks have multiple values and are not to be set aside for one purpose or interest group. It acknowledges, in effect, that shipwrecks are educational and recreational opportunities for archeologists, historic preservationists, sport divers, and fishermen. They are also habitats for marine life. But the law acknowledges the commercial value of shipwrecks to tourism and other forms of commerce. As a result, the law directs states to provide reasonable public access, protect natural resources and habitats, guarantee recreational exploration, and allow appropriate public and state sector recovery. It authorizes states to use federal funds from the Historic Preservation Fund for a range of educational and protection activities.

What are the citations for the Abandoned Shipwreck Act and its guidelines?
ASA is found in public law at P. L. 100–298, §2, Apr. 28, 1988, 102 Stat. and in the U.S. Code at 43 U.S.C. §§ 2101-2106, et seq.

Section 5 directs the National Park Service to develop guidelines to assist States and the appropriate federal agencies in developing legislation and regulations to carry out their responsibilities under this Act. See Abandoned Shipwreck Act Guidelines.

For More Information
Aubry, Michele. 1997. "Abandoned Shipwreck Act (ASA)," In Encyclopedia of Underwater and Maritime Archaeology, edited by James P. Delgado. London: British Museum Press.

Croome, A. 1992. "The United States' Abandoned Shipwreck Act Goes into Action: A Report." International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 21(1):39-53.

Last updated: January 12, 2023