Do ancient shipwrecks stand a chance ?

There’s an ongoing dispute over how to best preserve marine shipwrecks. Photo by Aquascopic/Alamy Stock Photo

By Evan Lubofsky - Hakai Magazine

There’s a three-way war being waged over the ancient shipwrecks that dot the ocean floor. On one side, marine archaeologists are rushing to study and preserve these historical sites.

On another, treasure hunters and salvagers are staking their claims. Meanwhile, both groups are racing against the clock. “We’re seeing severe damage to wreck sites,” says marine archaeologist Mike Brennan. “It’s ongoing, and every day that we wait for protection of these sites, trawlers are scraping them apart.”

Fishing fleets are the unwitting third power in this dispute. Archaeologists and treasure hunters have different motives, but fishing trawlers are wreaking havoc, their weighted nets pulling at wrecks and disrupting these sunken treasures.

In preserving maritime history, says Brennan, time is of the essence. Brennan has seen the devastation trawlers can cause firsthand. During a recent study, he and his colleagues made two surveys of a wreck site off the coast of Turkey.

In the 11 months between cruises to visit the Ereğli E, a trading vessel that carried wine, olive oil, and other goods across the Mediterranean, a delivery truck’s worth of artifacts from the fourth century BCE—including ceramic jars and human bones—had been dragged away or dismantled by fishing gear.

In reality, Brennan had anticipated the damage. His study had been designed, in part, to document the damage trawlers can cause, and fuel the case for establishing marine protected areas around ancient wreck sites.

Brennan, like many marine archaeologists, is of the mind that humanity’s sunken past should stay beneath the waves and off the auction block.

And, he says fishing bans around wrecks will thwart excavation by treasure hunters, who often use the threat of trawl damage as an excuse to haul up and sell artifacts. Sean Kingsley, director of Wreck Watch International, takes issue with the excuse theory, saying it is disingenuous to suggest that the threat of damage through fishing is used to justify commercial exploitation.

But he also doesn’t see the viability in trying to preserve all wrecks on the ocean floor.

“Who will pay to enforce the continuous monitoring of endangered sites is hard to imagine,” he says. “And ring-fencing a wreck would need to be a permanent measure, financially and administratively.”

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