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Protected Wreck Sites - Designation and Access

There are thousands of wrecked vessels around the UK coast.  They are protected by a range of legislation including the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 and 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.

This short article provides a brief overview of protection of wrecks under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973.

The Protection of Wrecks Act 1973

Wrecks are threatened by natural elements and commercial exploitation of the seabed. The survival of wreck sites, therefore, depends on commitment from the users and management of the seabed. The Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 ('1973 Act') was introduced to control activities so that designated wrecks are not put at risk from undisciplined activities or unauthorised investigation. There are two possible designations under the 1973 Act:

  • Section 1 provides for the protection of designated wrecks deemed to be important due to their historical, archaeological or artistic value.
  • Section 2 provides protection for wrecks that are designated as dangerous because of their contents.

Wreck sites are protected as they can hold information about ships, mercantile trade, the lives of sailors and passengers, and society as a whole. Protection can also help broaden public appreciation of England's maritime heritage.

Under section 1 of the 1973 Act, the Government can designate a wreck and the adjacent seabed to prevent uncontrolled interference. Designated sites are likely to contain the remains of a vessel, or its contents, which are of historical, artistic or archaeological importance. There are currently 52 designated wrecks, under section 1, in England (62 in the UK).

Section 2 of the 1973 Act governs restrictions in relation to dangerous wrecks. Section 2 is administrated by the Receiver of Wreck through the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. There is a no entry policy for wrecks considered dangerous because of their contents. There are currently two designated wrecks under this section- the SS Richard Montgomery in Kent and the SS Castilian in Anglesey.

The designation identifies the location of the wreck site and the extent of the restricted area to make sure the site is protected. The site is sometimes indicated by a buoy, and suitably placed notices will indicate sites close to the shore.

Aside from the  'no entry' policy for wrecks considered dangerous,  anyone who wants to dive to visit, salvage or deposit anything at other designated wreck sites will need a licence to do so. The licence is granted by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports and issued by Historic England. Although anyone can apply to access a protected wreck site, a licence will only be authorised if it will be of benefit to the care, understanding or public appreciation of the site. Moreover, you will generally only be issued a licence if you:

  • Are competent and properly equipped to carry out operations appropriate to the historical and archaeological importance of the wreck and any objects contained or previously contained in a wreck
  • Have a genuine reason for doing things in the area that can only be done with a licence.

Bathing, angling and navigation are allowed within a restricted area if there is no likelihood of, or intention to, damage the wreck or obstruct work on it. Anchoring on the site is only permitted for licensed activities or in circumstances of maritime distress.

Enforcement under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973

Protection means that, without a licence, it is a criminal offence to:

  • Tamper with, damage or remove any part of a vessel lying wrecked on or in the seabed or any object formerly contained in such a vessel
  • Carry out diving or salvage operations directed to the exploration of any wreck or to removing objects from it or from the seabed, or use equipment constructed or adapted for any purpose of diving or salvage operations
  • Deposit anything including anchors and fishing gear which, it if were to fall on the site, would obliterate, obstruct access to, or damage any part of the site.

If these activities are carried out without a licence you could be fined up to £5,000.

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