Underwater Archaeology - State and Federal Laws Protecting Underwater Archaeological Resources
The diving public is encouraged to visit Florida's unique historical and archaeological sites, which include many shipwrecks around coastal regions and in the rivers of the state. In fact, no shipwreck under state jurisdiction is "off-limits" to divers. However, these sites are protected by legislation that prohibits any disturbance or removal of objects from archaeological or historical sites on state-owned lands or submerged bottomlands without written authorization from the Division of Historical Resources. Remember, take only photographs and leave only bubbles!
As with Florida's natural resources, such as live coral, manatees, and other marine life, sport divers are learning the importance of conserving and protecting cultural resources. Unlike natural resources, however, cultural resources do not grow back again once they are damaged or destroyed.
Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA)
This 1972 Act assigned authority to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to designate sanctuaries in United States waters to protect natural and historical resources for present and future generations of Americans. The first National Marine Sanctuary was created in 1975 on the site of the sunken Civil War ironclad Monitor off North Carolina. Designated in 1990, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary covers 2800 nautical square miles and ensures the protection of that fragile and beautiful environment, including the continental United State's only coral reef and numerous shipwrecks. Cultural resource management in the Sanctuary includes the inventory and assessment of shipwrecks, which is an on-going project in partnership and cooperation with the Florida Department of State.
Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA)
ARPA was enacted by Congress in 1979 to protect our nation's archaeological resources located on public lands. This law provides for punishment of individuals who knowingly loot or vandalize archaeological sites by imposing stiff fines, imprisonment, and confiscation of artifacts as well as tools and vehicles used in the violation. Although ARPA does not apply to state lands, the passage of this law paved the way for states, including Florida, to enact similar laws for the protection of cultural resources located on state lands.
Abandoned Shipwreck Act (ASA)
On 28 April 1988, President Reagan signed into law the Abandoned Shipwreck Act (43 U.S.C. 2101). The purpose of ASA is to give title to certain abandoned shipwrecks that are located in state waters to the respective states, and to clarify that the states have management authority over those abandoned shipwrecks. This law gives title to shipwrecks in Florida waters to the people of the State of Florida. The Bureau of Archeological Research manages Florida's shipwrecks for the people, ensuring no shipwreck be wantonly destroyed through human action, providing for shipwrecks to be scientifically studied to gain knowledge of Florida's maritime past, and encouraging public access and enjoyment while making sure future Floridians have the same opportunity.
Florida Historical Resources Act
Florida's antiquities law (Chapter 267, Florida Statutes), and administrative rules (Chapters 1A-31 and 1A-32) govern the use of publicly-owned archaeological and historical resources located on state property, both on land and in the water. Administered by the Florida Division of Historical resources, the law establishes programs and policies to encourage preservation of historic resources for the public benefit. State-owned underwater resources are those that are located on the bottom of navigable rivers, streams, lakes, bays, and offshore (in the Gulf of Mexico out to 10 miles, and in the Atlantic out to 3 miles).
Major goals of Florida's historic preservation program are to identify, register, protect, and preserve significant historical resources which belong to the public. Divers are encouraged to participate in the identification, recording, and reporting of underwater sites in order to preserve them. However, disturbing or digging of publicly-owned sites is illegal unless permission is obtained in advance from the Division of Historical Resources. Intentional excavation of underwater sites without written authorization is considered a third-degree felony. Its best to record and report what you find, and seek help to proceed with further investigation.
Currently, permission to conduct excavations on publicly-owned sites can take the following forms:
Archaeological Research Permits may be granted by the State to survey and excavate in state waters by scientific and educational institutions such as museums, universities, and colleges. The permittee must have the necessary professional archaeological expertise to perform proper field research, analysis, interpretation, conservation, and reporting. All materials collected under a research permit remain public property to be administered by the State, but may be placed on loan for the purpose of further study, curation, or display.
Exploration and Recovery Permits may be granted by the Division of Historical Resources to individuals or companies for the survey and recovery of submerged cultural resources offshore in State waters. These are not leases of state lands, but permits to perform certain activities under the supervision of the State. After completion of an extensive survey, excavation may be permitted under archaeological guidelines and recovered artifacts must be recorded and conserved. At the conclusion of analysis and conservation treatment, a portion of these materials may be awarded to the permittee. The State retains the remainder of recovered materials for research collections and public display.