Protecting Underwater Cultural heritage, safeguarding the future of our history

Croatia has just opened its first underwater archaeological park off the island of Lonsinj. A museum only for divers who can see, amongst other artefacts, replicas of Venetian cannons, ancient amphorae, anchors from the fourth and fifth centuries and machine guns from WWII.

But marine treasures aren’t just attractive to those who want to understand the history of humanity through the marvels found on seabed around the world.

Lamentably, the incalculable archaeological value of the shipwrecks and other items that make up this vast underwater cultural heritage, along with a lack of specific legislation, has led to a proliferation of treasure hunters.

It’s estimated that there are more than three million shipwrecks around the world. The irreparable losses to science and the public caused by the plundering of the seabed translate into profit for treasure hunters, who are set up to commercially exploit these submerged archaeological sites and objects.

Together with technological measures to help in the preservation of shipwrecks, considered the best means of conservation by the experts, underwater heritage should be protected by States through legislation that gives legal recognition to these cultural sites.

These archaeological remains are scattered across the ‘Seven Seas’ and each State has different laws to deal with them. Some countries have no specific regulation whatsoever, others the bare minimum and even in those countries that seek greater protection gaps are often to be found.

Even where there is legal protection, gaps in State Sovereignty will allow treasure hunters to pursue their activities and take advantage of the underwater artefacts for commercial ends.

As UNESCO explains, only a small part of the world’s oceans, adjacent to national territories – the Territorial Sea – falls within the exclusive national jurisdiction of only one State. On the High Sea, “no State has jurisdiction beyond that applying to its nationals and vessels”.

Out of this situation was born the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, with the aim of being a unifying text that promotes understanding. The Convention was adopted in 2001 and entered into force in 2009, eight years later.

The Convention, which has now been ratified by 45 States, sets out a series of basic principles aimed both at the protection of underwater artefacts as well as the cooperation between the signatory states. It is completed by an annex made up of 36 widely recognised and practical guidelines for the treatment and investigation of underwater cultural heritage.

The text, which does not affect property laws concerning shipwrecks, defines “Underwater cultural heritage” in its first Article as “all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character which have been partially or totally under water, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years…”

Ratifying the Convention prevents the commercial exploitation and dispersal of underwater cultural heritage; guarantees that it will be conserved in situ and preserved for the future; helps the tourism industry concernedenables capacity building and the exchange of knowledge; and enable effective international cooperation.