Who Decides Who Owns The Shipwrecks?

An Opinion Piece by Dr. E. Lee Spence

Do States really own the shipwrecks? Or, do the heirs, discoverers or salvors?

Many states claim ownership of shipwrecks on the basis that they are embedded in the seafloor, which they do own. But, I disagree on whether that should be any part of the criteria. I have personally seen 200 years old wrecks sitting entirely exposed on the bottom and I have seen wrecks that have been down just a couple of years that were entirely covered over (i.e. embedded). I have also seen wrecks cover and uncover as the result of storms, so I don’t think being embedded should be considered as an element of ownership.


States also claim ownership of shipwrecks on the basis of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, which congress passed giving states ownership of all abandoned wrecks within their waters. However, shipwrecks and salvage correctly come under the judicial branch of our government, not under the executive branch, so that law was effectively an attempt by one branch of our government to take away and assume the duties of another. That alone should make the law unconstitutional.

Furthermore, the ships were someone’s private property and therefor belong to the heirs or to the companies that owned or insured them. That means that the federal government’s unilateral declaration that the wrecks were abandoned and declaring them the property of the States was an unconstitutional seizure of private property without due process (due process being done through the courts not congress). Too often we forget that the mere passage of a law by Congress does not make something right or constitutional, it only makes it “legal” and only as long as the law goes unchallenged.

If the wrecks are truly lost and abandoned, then, by long establish federal court decisions, their ownership goes to the finder/salvor. If an owner can be established, then the Federal Court (not Congress) decides who get what and in what form and percentage. The Court may be overworked and may see allowing Congress to get away with this assumption of rights not granted to the executive branch under the Constitution is to their benefit, but it is not to ours. I say we need to force the federal courts to do their job.

Ownership of shipwrecks (in the United States) needs to be decided on a case by case basis, looking at all of the facts involved. In other words, ownership should be decided by due process, and not by an unconstitutional act of Congress.