Sunken treasures spark legal battles between salvagers and states

It's the sort of thing that would warm the heart of the 18th-century pirate Samuel Bellamy. After all, irritating business and government officials with frequent plunderings was his specialty.

Years after his treasure-laden ship went down in a storm off Massachusetts' Cape Cod, the ship - or, more accurately, its contents - is sparking legal hassles between salvagers and the state.

And the outcome here could have implications for the way other states manage underwater artifacts in their lakes, rivers, and coastal waters.

''There's an increasing amount of litigation over wrecks in this country,'' says George Bass, director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University. Part of the reason, he says, is that treasure hunters have become more successful in recent years, finding more wrecks and unearthing some multimillion-dollar booties.

Over the last decade, many states - from Texas to Vermont - have developed laws governing underwater salvage operations, partly to protect the historical integrity of the sites as well as to make sure salvagers divvy up treasures with state museums. Florida law, for instance, allows the state to take about 25 percent of a salvaged cargo, with the rest going to the salvager.

Mediterranean countries, by contrast, have always plunked underwater archaeological sites in the same category as those found on land - with artifacts automatically becoming the property of the state, no matter who hoists them or what they're worth.

But shipwrecks in the New World have generally been treated like potential salvage items for free enterprise, says Daniel Lenihan, chief of the Submerged Cultural Resource Unit of the National Park Service. ''The idea of shipwrecks as data-bearing archaeological sites is relatively new,'' he says.

Many Caribbean nations, eager to split sunken cargoes with private ventures, still have loose policies on granting permits.

''That's probably because they don't have any history of experience with land excavations,'' says Texas A & M's Dr. Bass, who's currently working on a 16 th-century wreck in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

With interest in US underwater sites growing among both scientists and salvagers, litigation seems inevitable.

''Treasure hunters have discovered that if they put their claims in federal court, they can override state laws,'' says Jay Barto Arnold III, marine archaeologist for the state of Texas.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Florida - the state which pioneered shipwreck regulations. But Florida has lost a long string of lawsuits and appeals since its law went on the books in 1967. In September, a federal district court, while giving a portion of the artifacts to Florida, ruled the state could not interfere with the salvage of a Spanish galleon off Fort Pierce.

''We don't feel a wreck should be treated any differently than a Indian burial ground in a state forest or on any other state-owned land,'' says Ross Morrell, director of the state's Division of Archives, History, and Records Management. Florida is appealing the court decision.

The treasure hunters have gained a good deal of popular support for their cause, say observers, because of their free-market philosophy. They portray themselves as ''little guys getting stomped on by the bloated bureaucracy,'' says the National Park Service's Lenihan.

The key to the dispute, say experts, is a fundamental conflict between the rights of salvagers and the need to protect antiquities.

According to federal admiralty law, salvagers are allowed to work on a ''finders-keepers'' basis, except within protected areas such as national parks. Archaeologists - who largely back state regulation efforts - argue that this leaves wrecks open to ''pillaging.''

There is a move in Washington to protect historically significant shipwrecks. US Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D) of Florida plans to reintroduce a bill in Congress which would exempt submerged artifacts from admiralty law.

State officials, for their part, seem unlikely to back down on their efforts. A spokesman in Florida says the state will continue granting permits and enforcing its law. And California is now in the midst of writing legislation on underwater archaeology - while keeping a close eye on the situation in Florida and Massachusetts.

In the meantime, Barry Clifford, the salvager who claims to have discovered the pirate ship in the sand off Cape Cod, is gearing up to start salvage operations in April.

''Our blower will dig a 20-foot deep hole in an hour-and-a-half,'' says Mr. Clifford. But if the legal wrangle with Massachusetts isn't resolved by then, state officials say they'll arrest anyone who takes even one ''piece of eight'' off the bottom.

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