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All Hands on Deck: Revising the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987


Our cultural consciousness is enamored by shipwrecks and cultural heritage submerged at the bottom of the sea. Submerged cultural heritage is not just fascinating, it encompasses incredibly important narratives of the past that inform our present. Not only does the Titanic remain in the depths of the ocean, so do warcraft and slave ships, ancient trade vessels, and harbors. Simply put, our world is connected by water and many of the nodes of civilization grew alongside water. In a world with constantly changing technologies and climate, cultural heritage resources embedded in our coasts and waters face increased threats from both humans and the environment. However, the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987—a major source of underwater cultural heritage protection in the United States—remains unchanged instead of flowing with the tide of change.

The United States has a patchwork system to protect its cultural heritage resources, both on land and at sea. Different states have widely varying approaches to their implementation of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act. Nonetheless, by adapting the Abandoned Shipwreck Act for modern day concerns, the United States can preserve resources for future generations. Therefore, this Note proposes Congress reformulate the Abandoned Shipwreck Act to address modern concerns. In doing so, an Abandoned Shipwreck Act reformulation should incentivize the protection of cultural heritage for both public access and environmental protection, and thus better reflect global understandings of cultural heritage. Further, the United States should develop a plan for national consistency in the preservation and public accessibility of underwater cultural heritage.