Shipwreck identification could facilitate ownership

By David Ferrara - Blog

While Fathom Exploration holds the salvage rights to four sites in Alabama waters, Chief U.S. District Judge William H. Steele scolded the company for failing to inform the court before the identity of the British ship Amstel was publicly unveiled at a news conference earlier this month.

"If Fathom has conclusively identified the wreck, then there would appear to be no need whatsoever to maintain a five-and-a-half-year stay to facilitate such identification," Steele wrote after a June 2 Press-Register story about the shipwreck.

But the announcement could expedite a ruling on who has the rights to the wreckage.

The case has been on hold for almost six years while Fathom Exploration attempts to identify the wreckage at four sites in Alabama waters.

Ultimately, the judge is expected to decided who can claim ownership to the artifacts — the state, the exploration company or a Mobile man who believes one of the sites is that of the 19th century clipper ship Robert H. Dixey. He is an heir of the ship’s captain.

Michael E. Mark, the lawyer for Fathom, said that he now plans to file a motion to lift the stay on the first site, where the Amstel was located, and have the court move forward with identifying the owner of the ship.

"Given that there are three additional sites which remain unidentified, the identification and announcement of ‘Site 1’ necessarily made this matter more complicated vis-a-vis the stay over the entire litigation," Mark wrote in response to the judge’s order.

Mark said operations planned for last summer "would have made Fathom’s identification of the site irrefutable," but the work was scrubbed because of the BP oil spill.

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