Doubloon seekers, archaeologists, and states tug at treasure chest

Just a few weeks ago, retired chicken farmer Melvin Fisher started hauling up gold, silver, and jewels from a sunken Spanish galleon 40 miles off the coast of this resort island. The find caught the public's imagination. But it has also horrified archaeologists around the country. They are concerned that the activities of Mr. Fisher and other underwater treasure hunters will erase an irreplaceable historical record.

And it has pitted a millenia-old maritime convention against a Florida state law of a few decades' standing. The resulting legal feud could have implications beyond that of protecting underwater artifacts in lakes, rivers, and coastal areas around the country. Some officials here worry that the dispute could eventually undermine the principle of a state's right to control the use of natural resources found off their shores.

``The people of this state have the ultimate say over how the resources of state waters are going to be used,'' says Florida Assistant Attorney General Eric Taylor. ``Make an exception for shipwrecks, and you undermine the state's claim to oversee the others.''

The battle lines are being drawn around the proposed Abandoned Shipwreck Act, before Congress for the fifth year. The act would give states authority over historic shipwrecks found in their waters -- usually extending three miles from the shoreline -- much as they have over historic landmarks on land.

But the bill's provisions may fly in the face of admiralty law. Formulated to protect the rights of individuals who recover items from abandoned or seriously endangered ships, admiralty law is supposed to encourage would-be salvors to undertake the risks of recovery operations. The idea is to get the otherwise lost items back into the normal cycle of commerce.

But a 1983 federal court ruling changed all that. In that case, Fisher, dissatisfied with a Florida state law that required treasure hunters to surrender 25 percent of the find on a shipwreck to state officials, successfully argued that admiralty law voided the state's claims.

The ruling had no effect on Fisher's efforts to find the recently discovered treasure ship Atocha; that vessel lay far beyond the state's waters. He did, however, snare the right to excavate a half dozen ships belonging to a Spanish fleet that sank off the central Florida coast in 1715.

But by allowing such wrecks to be included under the umbrella of admiralty law, the decision marked a radical departure from conventional interpretations: No other country allows admiralty law to determine the future of similar vessels.

State officials are joined in their opposition to admiralty law's jurisdiction by a growing chorus of archaeologists alarmed by the possibility that some historically priceless wrecks may be carelessly dismantled or even destroyed in the hasty search for gold. They say concern has been heightened by the swelling interest in treasure hunting after Fisher's find.

``Would you blow up Monticello because someone found oil underneath?'' asks George Bass, a marine archaeologist at Texas A&M University who is currently excavating an 11th-century vessel off Turkey. ``An archaeological site is a historical site and it should be left to archaeologists to study.''

Most treasure salvors implacably oppose a state role in overseeing shipwreck excavation, however. They say state control of shipwreck salvaging would ultimately cause the wrecks to be declared off limits for amateur divers and erstwhile treasure hunters. They insist that their concern with the archaeological heritage of shipwrecks is genuine, and that they adhere to accepted practices when excavating wrecks. They also say that federal admiralty courts can require them to do so as a condition of their cl aim.

The argument does not placate skeptics. Last year, the shipwreck bill passed the House and nearly cleared the Senate before it was stopped by Sen. Paula Hawkins (R) of Florida. Congressional hearings are expected in the fall; supporters vow to again push the bill to a floor vote.

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