Why is there a storm brewing over the right to plunder shipwrecks ?

By Cahal Milmo - The Independent


Why are we asking this now ? 

Magistrate Mark A Pizzo, sitting in the US Federal Court at Tampa, Florida, might not be a major figure in international law but he has just made a potentially vital decision on the future of 3,000 treasure-laden shipwrecks that lie in the world's oceans.

Mr Pizzo ruled that an American marine archaeology company should return gold and silver coins worth £300m to the Spanish government after the bullion was removed from a sunken vessel in the Atlantic.

Odyssey Marine Exploration removed the 500,000 coins, weighing 17 tonnes, in 2007 and flew them back to its Florida base from Gibraltar. 

The move was greeted with fury by the Spanish government, which insisted the wreck was the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a frigate which was sunk by the Royal Navy in 1804.

Odyssey insisted there was not enough evidence to prove the site, which it called Black Swan, was the Nuestra Senora and, even if that were the case, the ship was on a commercial mission and its cargo could be legitimately recovered under salvage law and shared among salvors and claimants.

Mr Pizzo dealt a serious blow to these plans when he issued a ruling that the sunken vessel was probably the Nuestra Senora and its glittering bullion should be returned in its entirety to Madrid. Odyssey has said it will appeal. 

Why is a 205-year-old Spanish wreck so important ? 

The Nuestra Senora, whose sinking provoked war between Britain and Spain, goes to the heart of a debate about which shipwrecks can be explored and their cargoes retrieved.

The 1989 International Convention on Salvage ruled that wrecks found in international waters were effectively there for the taking, requiring salvors to obtain "title" to the site which in most cases gives them ownership of whatever they can recover. But a key exception are the estimated 3,000 sovereign immune vessels which litter the world's seabeds. 

These state-owned ships, including all naval vessels, remain the inalienable property of their originating nation. The US judge decided that the Nuestra Senora was a sovereign vessel despite evidence that it was on a commercial voyage taking privately owned gold from Peru.

Odyssey's share value plunged on news of the ruling. If the recommendation is upheld on appeal, it could have major implications for the dozen or so underwater treasure hunting companies that have sprung up by obliging them to return their finds to government coffers. 

Where have all these treasure hunters come from ? 

The marine archaeology business has been transformed in the past decade by the arrival of remote-controlled submersible robots which have allowed explorers to reach deep-water wrecks for the first time. Such exploration does not come cheap.

The smallest remote operating vehicle (ROV), necessary for probing, photographing and retrieving artefacts from the sea bed, costs about £35,000. Odyssey operates a Land Rover-sized ROV called Zeus which cost up to £2.5m and is capable of picking up anything from a two-tonne cannon to a single coin as well as taking high-resolution photographs of a wreck site. Operating costs are vast – about £600,000 a month to run a fully-equipped survey ship. 


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Spain Mercedes odyssey marine exploration FLORIDA American courts Civil Guard