Squeaky Wheels – By David Ball

August 18, 2009

Senior Marine Archaeologist and Diving Safety Officer for the Minerals Management Service, David BallThe two previous blog postings have included, to a certain extent, a discussion on the issue of treasure hunting versus archaeology. It is unfortunate that so many conversations on marine archaeology often turn to this well-worn argument; however, it remains an important issue and one that will no doubt continue for the foreseeable future. One reason archaeologists are losing the battle of educating the public on the need to protect submerged archaeological resources is because we fail to voice our concerns in large enough numbers to lawmakers and regulators. So I thought I’d move the discussion toward mentioning an initiative currently underway in the United States.

The vast majority of the seafloor remains unregulated and unprotected from the impacts of treasure hunting operations on historic shipwrecks. Technological advances in the last decade have made it possible to identify and excavate shipwrecks miles underwater. Depths that were once thought to be unreachable are now surveyed on a regular basis. In the Gulf of Mexico alone, over two dozen shipwrecks have been identified in water depths ranging between 1,000 and 7,000 feet. Yet legislation to protect these non-renewable cultural resources has not kept up with the technology, leaving these sites open to potential salvage operations.

In the United States, there are a number of historic preservation laws that apply to submerged cultural resources within State boundaries. Most of these laws were initially developed for terrestrial lands, but have been used to regulate submerged cultural resources on State submerged bottomlands. Yet, once the transition from State to Federal waters is crossed, most of these laws no longer apply. The Abandoned Shipwrecks Act, for instance, assigns ownership of all abandoned vessels located on State-controlled waterways, yet its jurisdiction ends at the State/Federal boundary; while the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 specifically exempts the Outer Continental Shelf and therefore does not apply at all. As a result, the only Federal historic preservation legislation that provides protection for submerged archaeological resources off the coast of the United States are: Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires Federal agencies to consider the effects of its undertakings on archaeological resources and is applied out to the extent of the U.S. Economic Exclusion Zone; the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, which protects submerged cultural resources within sanctuary boundaries; and the Sunken Military Craft Act, which among other things confirms the right of title to the United States of all submerged U.S. military vessels.

Efforts have been underway for some time to address this legislative gap and provide protection of submerged archaeological resources outside of current jurisdiction. For example, the recent ratification of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage establishes guidelines for conducting scientific investigations of submerged cultural resources and clearly advocates against commercial exploitation of these resources. Similarly, the RMS Titanic Maritime Memorial Act sets a new precedent by providing protection on an historically significant shipwreck in international waters.

Recently, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation declaring June 2009 as National Oceans Month. On that same day, 12 June 2009, the President also sent a memorandum to all Federal agencies and executive departments in the United States announcing the creation of an Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force. One of the responsibilities of this Task Force is to develop recommendations for a “national policy that ensures the protection, maintenance, and restoration of the health of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems and resources, enhances the sustainability of ocean and coastal economies, preserves our maritime heritage, provides for adaptive management to enhance our understanding of and capacity to respond to climate change, and is coordinated with our national security and foreign policy interests.” Note that the Task Force is charged with developing recommendations that will “preserve our maritime heritage.” This is an important issue that is often overlooked when developing national policy on ocean issues, and one that could be glossed over again without public and professional comment.

Too often these national initiatives focus primarily on protecting natural resources such as marine mammals, coral reefs, or chemosynthetic communities. If cultural resources are mentioned at all, it’s as an afterthought and the issue is usually marginalized or disappears completely. One of the best ways to keep cultural resources concerns on the table is through public comment, and a lot of it. The squeaky wheel gets greased. This became painfully obvious last year when I, along with two other marine archaeologists, attended a public workshop of interested parties held by the Sea Grant Consortium to solicit research priorities for the Gulf of Mexico. At the time, Sea Grant was holding a series of workshops in coastal states to prioritize future research needs. The majority of people that participated in the workshop I attended were biologists and geologists. We broke into small groups and developed lists of research priorities, then met as a whole and voted on each. Unfortunately, the three marine archaeologists present were far outnumbered and our concerns were dropped to the bottom of the list. To my knowledge, no other marine archaeologists made it to any other meetings. Had our population attended these meetings en masse, the outcome on research priorities would have been significantly different.

Fortunately, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the group that has been charged with leading the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, has established a website to solicit comments on the new oceans initiative. The commenting period will end after 90 days from the 12 June memorandum, somewhere around 10 September. With about three weeks remaining, I encourage all who read this blog to visit this website and provide comments to the CEQ on the importance of protecting non-renewable archaeological resources on the seafloor. And if you happen to read this after the comment period closes, then I encourage you to become more vocal during the public commenting periods for other Federal initiatives, environmental impact statements, and environmental assessments; all of which are regularly posted in the Federal Register.



David Ball is the Senior Marine Archaeologist and Diving Safety Officer for the Minerals Management Service. He is also a Board Member of the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology. He has been involved with documenting dozens of historic shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico, including the remains of a 200-year-old vessel in 4,000 feet of water, known as the Mardi Gras Shipwreck Project. He has also participated in archaeological investigations on World War II shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico and the Battle of the Atlantic Expedition off the North Carolina coast. Dave received a Master of Arts degree from Florida State University in 1998 and has led terrestrial and underwater projects throughout the United States.

* The views expressed in this blog are the personal opinions of the author and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Government, the Minerals Management Service, or the Department of the Interior.

** The opinions expressed by guest bloggers do not necessarily reflect those of the MUA, its staff, or its partner organizations.



  1. I understand what the author is saying. Yes, shipwrecks are a freeze frame of a point in time and should be treated with respect. And yes, there does need to be firmer legislation to control site destruction. However, I also feel that some very important discoveries have come to light due to the work of marine salvage operations. The bottom line here is economics. An archaeologist has a non-market driven profession. We have jobs due to a law. I know from experience that marine archaeology is exponentially more expensive to fund than terrestrial and has almost no market need.
    A better solution I feel would be for us to stop trying to halt all exploitation of maritime history and work with these groups. As an example it is law that a mining operation does a full archaeological assessment and mitigation before disturbing any historic sites. The mine is who is funding the research, yet with the understanding that they will be able to utilize the minerals under the site once the recordation is complete. It should be the same for shipwrecks. The salvagers have claim over the precious materials after they can be removed by trained, impartial hands.
    My biggest problem with the idea of outlawing salvage is that it does not seem to take into account the vast amounts of history that could be found through a market driven, yet regulated, industry. Not to mention the jobs it could create for marine archaeologists and the new information it could produce by simply working with salvage operations.

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