Shipwreck Law: All Hands on Deck for Conservation

Post Authored By: Teresa Dettloff

The Great Lakes are home to many historical shipwrecks that divers travel from all over the world to explore. It is estimated that the Great Lakes contain 6,000 – 10,000 wrecks.[1] Lake Michigan, bordering Illinois, is home to many shipwrecks that all have a fascinating past. Illinois specifically has jurisdiction over 63 miles of Lake Michigan’s shoreline and 976,649 acres of lake bottom.[2] Fresh water maintains the wrecks in pristine condition, preserving history for many years to come. There are several federal and state laws that govern who retains ownership to shipwrecks, how they can be accessed, and how they are protected.

(The deck of the Wells Burt, Lake Michigan)

The Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 (43 U.S.C. §§ 2101 et seq.)

Under this Act, Congress obtains the title to abandoned shipwrecks located in US Waters.[3] Congress then transfers title to the state territory that contains the shipwreck in most circumstances.[4] This law also charges Congress with ensuring that States adopt policies to protect shipwrecks, while encouraging recreational exploration of the shipwreck sites.  The Act was ultimately passed to protect history, as artifacts were often salvaged and taken off shipwrecks for private use.[5] Salvaging the artifacts from shipwrecks can damage the vessel and removes key clues for archaeologists and researchers about the vessel and time period. Removing artifacts from a shipwreck quite literally dismantles history, so it is important that laws such as this remain in effect to protect these historical sites.

(Wreckage of the Rotarian, Lake Michigan)

The Sunken Military Craft Act (10 U.S.C. §§ 113 et seq.)

This Act was passed in 2004 and was enacted to protect sunken military craft from unauthorized disturbance.[6] Specifically, sunken naval military craft are property of the United States government regardless of their location. This includes foreign military craft that has sunk in US territorial waters. While the Act generally prohibits “any activity directed at a sunken military craft that disturbs, removes, or injuries any sunken military craft,” permits can be obtained for several reasons, including archaeological, historical, or educational purposes.[7] 

(The Buccaneer, Lake Michigan)

The Archaeological and Paleontological Resources Protection Act (20 ILCS 3435)

Illinois has adopted its own law, the Archaeological and Paleontological Resources Protection Act, which protects shipwrecks within Illinois waters in the Great Lakes.[8] Under this law, shipwrecks are included as archaeological resources, and are therefore protected, preserved, and regulated as such.[9] The Act specifically prohibits disturbing archaeological resources unless a permit has been obtained, and it is also illegal to sell and/por exchange artifacts collected from a shipwreck.[10]

(The Straits of Mackinac, Lake Michigan)

Why it Matters

Shipwrecks are a window into the past and are a valuable historical resource. Wrecks found in the Great Lakes tell a story and are an important piece of history that deserve our protection. Shipwrecks continue to be discovered, and therefore, the laws and policies that protect them remain relevant. Regarding conservation, there are two main schools of thought; one is that shipwrecks should be kept from the public to avoid damage from divers and boats and salvaging, and the other is to engage the public, especially divers, to learn about, conserve, and protect our shipwrecks. Citizen science projects, including the Big Anchor Project, involve the public in learning about different wrecks and artifacts, providing beneficial data for scientists around the world.[11] 

[1] Daniel G. Yoder, Illinois Shipwrecks: The Past, The Present, The Future, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant Program, p.1, (last visited Oct. 30, 2021).

[2] Id. at p. 2.

[3] Abandoned Shipwreck Act, National Park Service, (last visited Oct. 30, 2021).

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Sunken Military Craft Act, Naval History and Heritage Command, (last visited Oct. 30, 2021).

[7] See Section 1402, 1403; (last visited Oct. 30, 2021).

[8] Supra note 1 at p. 18.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] The Big Anchor Project, (last visited Oct. 30, 2021).

Embedded photographs taken by the below author during diving excursions.

About the Author:

Teresa Detloff

Teresa Detloff practices law in Chicago, Illinois and is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago School of Law, where she served as a lead article editor for the law journal. She is also a member of the United Nations Association Chicago Chapter.

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