Hidden Stories of the Sea: Steps to Take When You Uncover a Shipwreck

Whether you stumble upon a treasure while scuba diving or you seek to find an abandoned ship, the discovery of a shipwreck is exciting. The contents that are found are the remnants of an ocean journey that went wrong. If the vessel had long ago been abandoned by its owners then the law of finds may apply and the discoverers of the shipwreck may be entitled to its riches. However, those who discover shipwrecks should be aware of the steps that they should take if they are fortunate enough to make a discovery.
Notify the U.S. Authorities
Assuming that the shipwreck has long been abandoned and that the owners of the shipwreck no longer have any claims to the contents buried in the sea, the discoverers of the shipwreck should contact the U.S. Marshal or Coast Guard to notify the government of the discovery.
Determine the Location of the Shipwreck
In 1987, the United States enacted a law called the Abandoned Shipwreck Act. The law was a response to treasure hunters who found and took shipwrecked property off the Coast of the United States and in the Great Lakes. The law clarified that shipwrecks which were embedded in a State’s submerged land or shipwrecks that were located in a State’s submerged land and deemed historical were the property of the State and not of the discoverer. The area which is part of a State’s submerged land varies is a matter of state law and varies from state to state. Many states define their submerged land jurisdiction as extending three nautical miles from the coast line.
If the shipwreck is located within a State’s submerged land and qualifies as state property under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act then the discoverer is not entitled to any of the property that is found unless the State decides otherwise.
If, however, the shipwreck was found outside of the territorial waters of any state then the general maritime rules concerning the discovery of a shipwreck apply and the discoverers may be entitled to keep the contents of the shipwreck.
Be Prepared To Defend Your Claim
Anyone who discovers a shipwreck should be prepared to defend the property that was found in a court of law. For example, if the owners find out that the shipwreck had been discovered then they might try to regain possession of the property that was found. The discoverers need to be prepared to argue that the shipwreck had been abandoned for a period of years and that the owners were not actively trying to recover their loss. If the discoverers cannot prove abandonment then they are unlikely to be legally entitled to the property that was found. Instead the law of salvage would apply and if the discovers are determined to be salvors then they may be entitled to a percentage of the property recovered.
The general rule of finders keepers is one that many underwater discoverers would like to apply and many times they can. However, all underwater discoverers should take the steps outlined above to make sure that they have the legal right to take title to the property found under the water.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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