While they’re not all quite as exciting as James Cameron exploring the Titanic with his army of robot cameras, you would be surprised at the number of ordinary citizens, offshore workers, and treasure hunters that stumble across historic finds every year.
Of course, as with nearly anything involving maritime law, the laws surrounding shipwreck discovery and salvage can be complex, multifaceted, and involve a number of different players (like the former shipowner, whoever found the vessel, and the maritime lawyers they contact) and factors to determine who gets to keep the shipwreck, what can be done with it, and so on.
The biggest difference comes down to when, exactly, the vessel was found. If someone helps a vessel in trouble, or if the ship is currently submerged, then the laws will apply differently than if the shipwreck has been submerged for a longer period of time, generally a few years at least.
If the vessel is currently sinking or has recently sunk when discovered, the law of salvage provides the rules and procedures for claiming ownership of the wreckage. Anyone who helps a vessel currently in trouble is often entitled to a reward for helping their fellow seaworkers under this law. This person, known as the salvor, has the responsibility to surrender the ship and its contents to the vessel’s lawful owner as long as the owner compensates the salvor for their actions in rescuing the ship and the crew. This compensation tends to depend on a few different factors such as the degree of risk undertaken by the salvor and the value of the goods/vessel, but this compensation is a big part of the law of salvage.
However, in cases where a shipwreck is discovered (and not an actively sinking vessel), the law of finds may apply under certain circumstances. If the shipwreck has been submerged for a number of years and the vessel’s legal owners can’t prove they’ve been actively trying to retrieve its contents, a discoverer who finds a shipwreck may be entitled to the full value of all discovered goods under this law. Furthermore, if the owner of the vessel is found to have given up on trying to recover the shipwreck, the discoverer can be deemed by the courts to have full rights to the content of the vessel, essentially making it their vessel. “Finders keepers”, indeed.
There are some exceptions to this. Governmental vessels either belonging to the United States or foreign governments are exempt from the law of finds as it’s assumed governments never abandon the search for a vessel. Many shipwrecks discovered within American territorial waters fall under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 which gives the title of any ship in American waters to the U.S. government and not to the discoverer, even under situations where the law of finds would normally apply. As American waters end three miles from the shoreline, however, there’s still plenty of room out there to find shipwrecked vessels.
These discoveries can be exciting and profitable, and under the right circumstances can even help to save the lives of workers onboard a damaged vessel. Staying aware of your rights under the law and having a Jones Act attorney on deck can make all the difference when you make a discovery – especially if you get to keep it.