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Protection of Military Wrecks and Wrecks in non-tidal waters

There are thousands of wrecked vessels and aircraft  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 Military Remains Act 1986 and the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Act 1979.

Protection of Military Remains Act 1986

The Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 prohibits entering and tampering with wrecked military vessels or aircraft. All military aircraft is automatically protected under this legislation, but vessels need to be designated individually. The Act enabled the government to establish controlled sites around wrecks in UK water or protected places for those in international water. The legislation is administered by the Ministry of Defence.

The Act makes it an offence to interfere, without a licence, with the wreckage of any crashed, sunken or standard military aircraft or designated vessel, irrespective of loss of life or whether the loss occurred during peacetime or wartime.

The designation of protected places includes the remains of any aircraft which crashed while in military service or any vessel which sank or stranded in military service after 4 August 1914. Vessels, to be designated as a protected place, need to be specifically designated by name but the location of the wreck does not need to be known. You are able to dive on an aircraft or vessel designated as a protected place on a 'look but don't touch' basis. There are currently 450 protected places in England's territorial waters.

Controlled sites are specifically designated areas which cover the remains of military aircraft or a vessel sunk or stranded in military service within the last 200 years. Diving operations in a controlled site are prohibited unless you are authorised by a specific licence. There are currently six controlled sites in England's territorial waters.

It is an offence under this Act to:

  • Conduct diving, salvage or excavation operations;
  • Tamper with, damage, remove, or unearth any remains; and
  • Enter any hatch or opening

on protected or controlled sites. A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable to a fine.

Ancient Monument and Archaeological Areas Act 1979

Although this Act mainly relates to land-based sites and structures and provides for the scheduling of monuments of national importance, it has been used to provide some level of protection for non-tidal underwater sites in recent years. Only suitably robust sites are likely to be scheduled, such as the remains of the German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow.

When a wreck has been scheduled as a maritime monument, public access is permitted on a 'look but don’t touch' basis. However, without scheduled monument consent it is an offence to demolish, destroy, alter or repair the monument.

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