Treasuring the sunken history in buried shipwrecks. Controversy grows over historical preservation versus salvage rights

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

SHIPWRECKS and sunken treasure - they are the stuff of childhood imagination, where greed and innocence mix smoothly into a dreamy potion of adventure. They are also the source of a growing controversy between those who feel that shipwrecks should be preserved for the benefit of the public and private treasure hunters who feel they have a right to whatever valuables they find.

This past summer, two private salvage operations looking for treasure in the tempestuous waters of the San Francisco Bay have rekindled the debate at a time when the recovery of the Titanic is bringing worldwide attention to shipwreck salvaging.

In June, the California Lands Commission granted Florida archaeologist Robert Marx a permit to raise the San Augustin, a 16th-century Spanish galleon, off the Point Reyes coast north of San Francisco.

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The San Augustin, which is reputed to be chock-full of Ming Dynasty porcelain and pieces of gold, silver, and jewelry, has been called the most important wreck on the Pacific Coast of North and South America.

In August, a company named SEAGAMB applied for permission to salvage the City of Rio de Janeiro, a steamer that sank after hitting submerged rocks in the Golden Gate in 1901. SEAGAMB hopes to recover millions of dollars' worth of silver bars that are thought to have been smuggled on board in Honolulu.

Although these two salvaging operations have captivated the Bay Area public, they have also concealed the issue of public access to underwater archaeological resources, according to Jim Delgado, maritime historian at the National Park Service.

``People would get upset if we allowed private individuals to take arrowheads from an ancient Indian burial ground,'' Mr. Delgado says. ``But the ocean is seen as a free-for-all situation.''

Delgado says the philosophy of the State Lands Commission, which must approve all salvaging operations in the state waters of California, is quite different from that of the National Park Service.

``The commission is still caught up in the mentality that shipwrecks are commodities, like minerals, oil, and timber,'' he says. ``But each shipwreck is really a unique time capsule of history and culture.''

Joyce Lane, a land agent with the commission, says the commission works with the California State Historical Preservation Office to assess the archaeological significance of a wreck before issuing a permit. She says very strict stipulations can be attached to a permit, limiting the type and extent of salvaging that can be done.

``We don't give a permit to a salvager and just let them loose on the site,'' Ms. Lane says.

In an area like San Francisco Bay, where there are as many as 300 shipwrecks, Lane says federal agencies such as the National Park Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration must issue their own permits for salvaging if the wreck lies within their jurisdiction.

Lane notes that if the recovered treasure of a state-approved salvage is worth less than $25,000, the state receives 25 percent of the value. If the treasure is worth more, the state's share is approximately 50 percent.

Delgado concedes that SEAGAMB, the company interested in the City of Rio de Janeiro, has shown remarkable sensitivity to the issue of leaving the artifacts on the ship intact while recovering any treasure.

But, he adds, such cooperation is rare, and there have been many instances in which salvagers have destroyed or taken artifacts that would have ``filled holes in the history books.''

The pilferage of shipwrecks blossomed with the discovery and use of the Aqua-Lung after World War II. Suddenly, thousands of people had access to wrecks in shallow waters everywhere.

``Almost every shallow-water wreck off the coast of Florida has been pilfered illegally by salvagers,'' Delgado says. ``And France basically has had all of its wrecks plundered.''

Delgado says artifacts removed from a wreck often end up on the fireplace mantels of salvagers' friends and relatives, instead of on public display.

``Shipwrecks are like a library full of great books. You want to protect the library so you can read the books and reprint them for the public,'' he says.

Delgado points to San Francisco's Maritime Museum as an example of a shipwreck library available for public use. Another is a unique underwater trail in Michigan's Isle Royal National Park, where scuba divers can take a tour of historical wrecks in Lake Superior much like an interpretive nature trail on land.

According to Delgado, the lack of comprehensive regulations has exacerbated the problem of protecting shipwrecks.

``Protection for underwater archaeological resources is at about the same stage as protection for archaeological land resources was in 1906,'' Delgado says. In that year, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a law providing federal protection for nationally significant archaeological sites on land.

In addition, Delgado says the Park Service, the only federal agency to have a specific program dedicated to protecting shipwrecks for the public, does not have the resources to keep up with the activities of private salvagers.

``We have an operating budget of about $180,000 a year,'' he says. ``And while we have had some successes, including the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor and Isle Royale National Park, we just can't do what needs to be done.''

Gone are the days when the depth of water made the location and recovery of many wrecks impossible. Modern technology, including sophisticated sonar equipment and underwater robots, known as remote operated vehicles, has made locating shipwrecks in all depths of water possible for those who can afford it.

Despite the trend toward greater destruction of archaeologically significant wrecks, help may be on the way with federal legislation introduced in the House of Representatives.

A bill now in the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee would assert federal ownership over all historically significant shipwrecks, limiting the powers of the states to issue salvaging permits.

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