Wrecks and Salvage

There are thousands of wrecked vessels and aircraft around the UK coast. Under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 ('MSA'), you must report all wreck material recovered from UK territorial waters and any wreck material brought into the UK from outside UK territorial waters to the Receiver of Wreck. This includes:

  • Wreck material found in or on the sea
  • Wreck material washed ashore in tidal waters
  • Material recovered from a wreck site- regardless of age, size or importance to value.

When you report recovered wreck material to the Receiver, you may be entitled to a salvage award.

Some wrecks are covered by other pieces of legislation including the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 or the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. Furthermore, if material comes from non-tidal waters, it is treated as if it was found on land and falls under other legislation, such as the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Act 1979.

Definition of Wreck

Under section 255 of the MSA 1995, the definition of wreck includes, "jetsam, flotsam, lagan and derelict found in or on the shores of the sea or any tidal water".

Jetsam refers to goods cast overboard to lighten a vessel in danger of sinking. The vessel may still perish.

Flotsam describes goods lost from a ship which has sunk or otherwise perished. The goods are recoverable as they remain afloat.

Lagan refers to goods cast overboard from a ship which afterwards perishes. The goods are buoyed so they can be recovered.

Derelict describes property, whether vessel or cargo, which has been abandoned or deserted at sea by those who were in charge of it without any hope of recovering it.

If a boat comes off its moorings, it is not usually classified as a wreck as it hasn’t been abandoned without hope of recovery. Similarly, buoys, such as data buoys, are not classed as wreck, but buoys forming part of fishing equipment may be classed as wreck when adrift.

The Receiver of Wreck

The Receiver of Wreck administers the MSA 1995 in relation to wreck and salvage, actively monitors diving and salvage activities, and educates sea users of their responsibilities. The Receiver sits within the Maritime Coastguard Agency and works closely with other government departments and heritage organisations involved in matters related to wrecks.

The Receiver of Wreck ensures the interests of both the salvor and owner are taken into consideration by establishing who owns the wreck; liaising with the finder, owner and other interested parties such as archaeologists and museums; and ensuring a fair salvage award payment is made where necessary. The Receiver does not currently charge a fee, but expects to recover any expenses incurred, such as storage or obtaining a valuation.

When important historical or archaeological material is reported, the Receiver may seek further advice from experts, and will try to ensure that it is offered to an appropriate museum. The salvor's views are considered when placing the material in a museum and they may still be entitled to a salvage award.

The Salvor

If you recover wreck material, you should assume it has an owner. Therefore, you must declare it to the Receiver by submitting a completed Report of wreck and salvage form within 28 days of recovery. If you recover wreck material but need more time to declare it, you can apply to the Receiver in writing, giving reasons for an extension. However, if a find is not registered within 28 days, or a request for an extension is considered unreasonable, the Receiver may, without further notification, commence proceedings under s.236(2) MSA 1995.

A salvor acting correctly under the law may be entitled to a salvage award, but this cannot exceed the salved value of the recovered material.

If you own a wreck, you must prove ownership to the satisfaction of the Receiver within one year of the material being reported. You will be entitled to have your property back as soon as you have paid any due expenses and an appropriate salvage award.

If a wreck from UK territorial waters remains unclaimed at the end of one year, it becomes the property of the Crown or grantee of the Crown, and the Receiver will dispose of the find on behalf of the Crown. If wreck from outside UK territorial waters remains unclaimed at the end of one year, the Crown makes no claim.

Enforcement under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995

The Receiver will investigate any report of possible offences regarding the treatment of wreck. If the investigation reveals sufficient evidence, the Receiver may prosecute those suspected of having committed an offence. Under the MSA 1995, the offences for illegal activity which carry penalties include:

  • 236- failing to declare a wreck find without a reasonable excuse carries a £2,500 fine on summary conviction, plus loss of salvage rights, and payment of twice the value of the find to the person entitled to the wreck.
  • 237- concealing or keeping possession of wreck or cargo and refusing to surrender it carries a £2,500 fine on summary conviction.
  • 245- taking an undeclared wreck from UK waters into a foreign port and selling it carries a maximum of five years' imprisonment on indictment.
  • 246(1)- boarding a vessel in distress without permission of master carries a £1,000 fine on summary conviction.
  • 246(3)- impeding or hindering attempts to save a vessel, concealing any wreck, defacing or obliterating any mark, and wrongfully carrying away or removing any wreck carries a £2,500 fine on summary conviction.

The Receiver may share information with other prosecuting authorities, for example, when offences come to light in relation to the Theft Act 1968 or the Firearms Act 1968.

To find out more about Wreck and Salvage Law please contact our Legal Director Lara Moore (a specialist Marine Regulatory lawyer).

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