Seekers, keepers: treasures lost at sea can be claimed by those who discover them, unless the US government is involved

  • When treasure is lost at sea, legal questions arise as to who owns the wreckage.
  • The “finds rule” and the “salvage rule” of maritime law offer international guidance for such matters.
  • However, the United States passed a law claiming all shipwrecks near its waters.

When treasures are lost at sea or begin to wash up on the coast, such as the Yeti coolers appearing along the Alaskan coast from the Zim Kingston Freighter that spilled shipping containers in rough seas last October: legal ownership of the items is in question.

In general, maritime law, also called admiralty law, is the default set of conventions and treaties that determine how the international community handles conflicts or navigational issues at sea. Under these laws, the “finds rule” and the “salvage rule” provide international guidelines for lost articles.

The finds rule assigns the first shipwreck or treasure hunter as the new owner and is usually mentioned when an item has been lost at sea for a period of time. However, the salvage rule requires searchers of newer or more valuable wrecks to attempt to return the items to their original owner, although searchers are entitled to compensation. according to Storage Journalan electronic archive of leading academic journals.

On board, valuables are insured so their loss at sea is covered, giving companies little incentive to try to recover their lost inventory, as is the case with the refrigerators – so a general ‘keep it’ mentality is often adopted for consumer items recently lost at sea. However, the problems are complicated when it comes to historic shipwrecks.

critics like Scholars Paul Hallwood and Thomas J. Miceli have argued the vagueness of the find and salvage rules “provides inadequate incentives to both properly locate and salvage historic wrecks” and “provides no protection of the scientific value of wrecks once they are found.”

“The ocean is the largest museum in the world”, marine archaeologist Peter Campbell he told the bbc.

In 1987, the United States implemented the Abandoned Shipwreck Act in an attempt to preserve historic shipwrecks, overriding maritime laws. The Act provides that any shipwreck “located within three nautical miles of the coast of the United States and in the internal navigable waters” becomes the property of the United States.

But further complications in rights to sunken ships and their cargo can arise when multiple countries claim a wreck. In such cases, as the San José, a Spanish galleon sunk by British ships 300 years ago and found in 2015, legal battles can drag on for years.

“It’s a very complex image,” Robert Mackintosh, a lawyer and archaeologist at the University of Southampton. he told the BBC. “As many states and people can have many different and often competing interests in shipwrecks, interests that have their origin in several different bodies of law.”

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