MARAD Warns Vandals Against Tampering With American Shipwrecks

A suspected illegal salvage vessel operating at a war wreck site off Indonesia, 2017

Published Jul 23, 2023 2:34 PM by The Maritime Executive

The growing prevalence of shipwreck vandalism has prompted the U.S Maritime Administration (MARAD) to issue a stern warning against engaging in such activities, maintaining that any form of disturbance must have approval from authorities.

MARAD has issued a notice stating that shipwrecks in its custody - including overseas - are increasingly being threatened by illegal salvage. Owing to the historical importance and value of the cargo in some of the sunken ships, the agency advises against unauthorized activities on the shipwrecks or their cargo.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which maintains a large database of shipwrecks, dumpsites, navigational obstructions, underwater archaeological sites, and other underwater cultural resources, estimates that there are approximately 20,000 shipwrecks in U.S. waters alone.

The MARAD notice on protecting sunken vessels and cargo comes at a time when cases of cannibalization of shipwrecks is on the rise. In taking the action, the U.S is joining a number of growing nations like the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand among others that are determined to protect and preserve shipwrecks and their cargo due to their historical importance.

“Those engaging in unauthorized activities involving shipwrecks and cargoes in MARAD's custody or control whether located in the waters of the United States, a foreign nation, or in international waters are advised that no disturbance or recovery from these shipwrecks or their cargoes may legally take place without the express permission of MARAD,” said MARAD in the notice.

It added that the U.S will use its authority to protect and preserve its shipwrecks and their cargoes from any illegal activities. For the U.S, custody and control extends to any shipwreck of a vessel that at the time of its sinking was owned or under charter of MARAD or one of its predecessor agencies. It also extends to shipwreck cargoes.

MARAD contends that the U.S title to these wrecks is not limited by the passage of time or the distance of the location. It holds that any activities at protected wreck sites require written consent from the agency.

MARAD's primary duties are focused on education and reserve fleet maintenance; it has about 800 employees, a budget of $900 million per year, and no law enforcement personnel of its own.