Treasure Hunters' Undersea Gold Rush Is Threatened by U.S. Navy

The Odyssey Explorer sits at a dock in North Charleston, South Carolina on April 22 Photograph by Bruce Smith/AP Photo

In just one dive on a 19th-century shipwreck, Odyssey Marine Exploration managed to recover gold ingots and coins worth more than $1 million from the bottom of the Atlantic. The marine salvage company’s announcement of the discovery sent its stock higher and, no doubt, inspired divers and investors alike that there may be more riches out there to be found.

The truth is, such golden opportunities may be about to dry up.

The U.S. Navy has proposed a new rule, little noticed outside a circle of treasure hunters and archaeologists, that could block businesses from salvaging some of the richest wrecks. The rule would establish a permitting process under which the Navy would decide who gets to access or disturb any nation’s sunken military craft within U.S. waters. The Navy would be able to deny a permit if it raises “concerns over commercial exploitation,” according to the proposal.

Because ships in military service could mean anything from a World War II vessel carrying silver bars to a Spanish galleon returning from the New World with gold, treasure hunters and wreck divers are livid. Dozens of them gathered April 25 at the Florida Institute of Technology to hear from salvage advocates about the implications. “Stand up for your rights and learn how to fight this power grab,” declared a leaflet promoting the event. Public comments gathered by the government in its rulemaking process also contain colorful appeals: “Please stop trying to shut down an industry of centuries” and “This is an example of government running amuck.”

Odyssey itself painted a gloomy picture when it weighed in with a letter protesting the rule. “[P]rohibiting independently funded commercial archaeology companies from engaging in such recovery projects will seriously diminish the discovery and study of our nation’s maritime history,” Odyssey’s director of international relations, Aladar Nesser, wrote on March 6, the day before the comment period closed for the Navy’s proposed rule.

The Navy has a long list of reasons for regulating salvage, which includes preserving historic sites, respecting the sanctity of underwater graves, and safeguarding state secrets. Extending the protections to foreign wrecks in U.S. waters can facilitate agreements with other nations to protect American military craft elsewhere in the world, the proposal says.

While the measures are new, they codify rights that already existed, says Robert Neyland, the head of the Underwater Archaeology Branch at the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington. “The foreign government can already go to court to fight salvage, and we would probably do the same,” he says. The permitting process, while new, would implement a law passed in 2004.

Assuming the rule becomes final, one constituency appears ready to celebrate: archaeologists who say that treasure hunters’ quests for gold overlook, and sometimes destroy, irreplaceable records of human history.

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