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The Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 in the New Millennium: Incentives to High Tech Piracy?

Ocean and Coastal Law Journal, Vol. 8, p. 167, 2003

Suffolk University Law School Research Paper

39 Pages Posted: 17 Jul 2007  

Russell G. Murphy

Suffolk University Law School


The Abandoned Shipwreck Act (ASA) of 1987 controls the search for and exploration of historic shipwrecks located within state territorial waters. These waters generally extend out 3 miles from state shorelines. Under the ASA, states automatically acquire title to any historic abandoned shipwreck located within this 3 mile boundary. Each state may then set up a regulatory system for "treasure hunting" these wrecks. (It is estimated that there are at least 50,000 shipwrecks along the coasts of the United States). In addition, the Act also strips federal courts of jurisdiction over "salvage" and "finds" admiralty law claims to wrecks covered by the Act. Such claims must be asserted in state courts.

This article examines the legislative history and judicial interpretation of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act in light of its broad goal of protecting and preserving historic shipwrecks and wreck sites. It concludes that the Act promotes just the opposite of its stated purposes. State regulatory regimes have given birth to a new breed of "high tech pirates" who, because of the burdensomeness of state laws and unavailability of traditional federal admiralty law remedies, now treasure hunt outside the law. Such treasure hunters will not spend the time and money required to search for wrecks unless they are confident of a suitable reward for their discoveries.

In order to deal with this phenomenon, the article proposes reforms in the ASA that could restore incentives for governmentally permitted shipwreck exploration. These include state-guaranteed rewards for historic shipwreck discoveries reported to the state, federal funding of state shipwreck regulatory programs, various modifications of US Department of Interior Guidelines governing such state programs, and limited restoration of federal court jurisdiction.

Suggested Citation

Murphy, Russell G., The Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 in the New Millennium: Incentives to High Tech Piracy?. Ocean and Coastal Law Journal, Vol. 8, p. 167, 2003; Suffolk University Law School Research Paper. Available at SSRN:

Russell G. Murphy (Contact Author)

Suffolk University Law School ( email )

120 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02108-4977
United States

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