The Abandoned Shipwrecks Act is a 1988 federal law that grants states jurisdiction over abandoned shipwrecks in their territorial waters. The intention of the law is to allow states to form historic preservation regimes to protect historic shipwrecks from looters and salvagers. One of the most important beneficiaries of this law is the state of Florida, with the longest coastline in the continental United States and a history of attempts to protect historic shipwrecks.
This law has been criticized since inception for removing the profit incentive for salvors to discover new shipwrecks. The Act has been subjected to a considerable amount of legal criticism for the removal of jurisdiction over shipwrecks from federal admiralty courts, but it has not received attention from policy scholars.
The purpose of this study is to test the Abandoned Shipwreck Act against criticism from prominent Florida treasure hunter Mel Fisher: that the legal change would lead to the discovery of fewer shipwrecks by salvors. It accomplishes this by investigating the timeline of Florida’s grants of salvage permits, known as Exploration and Salvage Contracts prior to the 1980s and known as 1A-31 permits in the past few decades. These permits are charted on a yearly basis. Additionally, this study interviews archaeologists, salvors, and state officials in Florida, asking them to evaluate the effectiveness of the Act.
This study finds that there has been a decline in the number of permits issued by the State of Florida subsequent to the Act’s passage, in comparison to the number issued in years prior to its passage. Interview data shows that practitioners, though having some criticism of the Act, do not think that it has led to any reduction in wreck discovery. They offer other explanations for the fluctuation in wreck discovery, including technological advances. Though the reduction cannot definitively be traced back to the passage of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, it does mark the issue for further policy study, to determine the effects of the Act on the ocean floor and not merely in the courtroom.