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Document Type

Article

Abstract

An estimated fifty thousand shipwrecks lie in the territorial waters of the United States. Five to ten percent of these wrecks are believed to have historical significance. An extraordinarily high percentage of these wreck sites are located within state boundaries. The Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 (hereinafter ASA) controls the search for and exploration of these historic wrecks and sets the legal and practical parameters for contemporary "treasure hunting" in the United States. Recent decisions interpret- ing or relating to the ASA confirm the longstanding criticism of the Act that it is poorly designed to achieve one of its primary goals: to promote archeologically and environmentally sensitive historic shipwreck exploration. An examination of these cases suggests that current law regulating historic shipwrecks not only discourages lawful search and recovery but actually encourages covert, unauthorized and illegal salvage operations. Such decisions seem destined to lead to the emergence of a new breed of technologically sophisticated "pirates." This article explores some of the problems created by the ASA as judicially interpreted by presenting three "models" of shipwreck exploration pursuant to the Act: The "Compliance" Model, "Negotiation" Model and "Pirates" Model. It addresses a basic question facing modem treasure hunters-will successful shipwreck search, discovery, exploration and recovery be fairly rewarded-and proposes some modest revisions of the ASA to help answer that question in the affirmative.

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