By Pamela V. Krol - Naples News
For years, sunken treasure off Florida’s coast has been a relative free-for-all for anyone with the time and ability to find it.
But proposed rules could make it harder for treasure hunters to collect the prized relics.
Some commercial salvers suggest the waters off of Florida contain more Colonial-era sunken treasure than any other place in the world, with a value estimated to be in the billions of dollars.
Salvage companies estimate at least a million dollars worth of treasure is in the Naples/Fort Myers area alone and artifacts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars are salvaged in and around Southwest Florida, by both commercial and recreational divers, each year.
Treasure hunting has been legal in Florida since the 1960’s. Recently, however, groups of marine archaeologists are fighting to have the practice outlawed.
Many in this camp consider treasure hunting to be little more than state-sanctioned looting of what they believe should be deemed historical sites. These groups are pushing for tougher laws and outright bans in many cases.
Over the past decade, marine archaeologists have successfully championed greater restrictions on Florida’s treasure hunting industry and have recently brought requests for modifications to the state’s rules governing the recovery of historical shipwrecks by private sector salvers.
Their requests would limit salvage permits to a period of one year and narrow search areas to one mile. They would also mandate that an archeologist be on board the search vessel.
The proposal would prohibit hunters from searching for treasure up to 500 yards offshore — the range that is considered the most treasure-rich because storms and hurricanes naturally wash shipwrecks toward the shore.
The rules could threaten the livelihoods of local treasure hunters, such as Captain Kym Ferrell, a Florida native who has been working aboard salvage vessels since he was 14.
He and a small crew of three to four people choose search sites based on historical research, instinct and knowledge of the local waters. Ferrell said he’s found treasure near Naples but would not say where.