Treaty to Protect RMS Titanic Wreck Site Takes Effect

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Published Jan 21, 2020 3:50 PM by The Maritime Executive

A long-awaited treaty on the protection of the RMS Titanic has entered into force, giving the governments of the UK and the United States the power to administer licensing for entry into the wreck or the removal of artifacts. The treaty was signed by the UK in 2003, and it has now come into force after its ratification by the United States at the end of last year.

The wreck of the Titanic was discovered in 1985 at a position about 350 nm off the coast of Newfoundland, and the ship rests at a water depth of about two and a half miles. Multiple countries have been negotiating an international agreement to protect the wreck since 1986, and the ratification of the treaty is an important step after 34 years of talks. As the site is in international waters, the wreck was not previously defended by national legislation, only by the protections afforded it as a UNESCO heritage site. 

"The RMS Titanic is the subject of the most documented maritime tragedy in history. This momentous agreement with the United States to preserve the wreck means it will be treated with the sensitivity and respect owed to the final resting place of more than 1,500 lives," said UK maritime minister Nusrat Ghani. "The UK will now work closely with other North Atlantic states to bring even more protection to the wreck of the Titanic."

The agreement will help to regulate subsea tourism and defend against potential scavengers, but the Titanic faces an immediate threat that the treaty cannot address: corrosion. The wreck has been on the bottom since April 15, 1912, and the most recent commercial dive expedition found that it is deteriorating.

According to tour operator EYOS Expeditions, Titanic is being slowly consumed by natural corrosion and metal-eating bacteria, aided by the strong currents that flow through the North Atlantic off Newfoundland. “The future of the wreck is going to continue to deteriorate over time, it’s a natural process," said EYOS mission scientist Lori Johnson in a statement last year. "These are natural types of bacteria, so the reason that the deterioration process ends up being quite a bit faster, is a group of bacteria, a community working symbiotically to eat . . . the iron and the sulphur."

The Titanic's hull circa July 2019 (Image courtesy EYOS / Atlantic Productions)