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Florida's Shipwrecks; Who owns the treasure?

Admiralty lawyers representing the State of Florida and private treasure hunters will be locked in battle with each other in federal courts over the next several months to determine ownership of the thousands of shipwrecks that lie beneath Florida's coastal waters.

If the courts rule against the state, Florida will no longer be able to regulate treasure salvage and exploration operations within its three-mile coastal limits and will have to stop confiscating 25 percent of all wealth recovered there. Since maritime laws are in question, other coastal states wiht salvage laws, including North Carolina and Texas, will be affected by the outcome.

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But Florida -- with its extensive history of early European exploration and shipping -- stands to bear the brunt of the decision. Underwater archaeologists estimate from 6,000 to 10,000 ships were lost in the shallow coral- bearings waters of the state as a result of storms, naval battles, and pirate attacks over the last 450 years.

General counsel Steve Nall of the Florida Division of Archives, History, and Records Management, which regulates the salvage operations, says the state is confident of proving jurisdiction over the wrecks. To make sure of this it has retained a Miami law firm specializing in maritime law to argue the 20 separate challenges filed by treasure salvagers, which begin with a preliminary hearing in Miami this month.

Preservationists say the wrecks have a "time capsule" characteristic about them that allows historians to pull back the curtain of the centuries and examine the remnants of the developing New World. "Because of the violent and rapid circumstances that usually surround the loss of most vessels, a cross sample of the seaborne material of the period goes down with the vessels," according to the "Underwater Archaeological Research and Salvage Handbook," issued to potential salvors by the state. As a result, some artifacts found a wreck sites may no longer exist elsewhere because of routine mishandling on land over the centuries.

Florida's salvage law, then, "is a mechanism to involve the private sector in salvaging archaeological items which the state would never be able [financially] to recover," explains Steve Lewis, archaeology supervisor for the Division of Archives' Underwater Section.

The private salvors, whom the state regards as having a bull-in-the-china-shop disdain for archaeological record-keeping, claim that the division's paternalistic attitude for the wrecks makes it almost impossible to make any money at their profession.

In fact, there are 19 separate processing pocedures to be considered before the Division of Archives will grant a salvage contract. This system usually results in a year-long delay between application and approval.

A $1,200 contract fee and $15,000 surety bond is required for the year-long contract. If granted, the salvor can dive only on one specific wreck site and the "scatter area" of the remnants, and must maintain one-meter square survey grids over the site. A daily log must be kept and a state field agent has to be available to be on board the salvage vessel to monitor the work. At the end of the contract period, the state retains 25 percent of the entire salvage.

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Since the Division of Archives began issuing contracts in 1969, 24 have been granted although only two are currently active. Both salvors are working individual wrecks from the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet, whic floundered off the Florida central east coast with millions of dollars in precious metals and jewelry headed for Spain.

It was the successful treasure salvage of one of the ships from this fleet by Brevard County resident Kip Wagner that indirectly resulted in the passage of the state treasure law in 1969.Mr. Wagner, using a 40-foot surplus naval launch and a $15 surplus metal detector, first detected the wreck in the mid- 1960s. Before he was done, Mr. Wagner and his divers brought up more than $6 million worth of silver gold, and artifacts. State preservationists, concerned that the publicity surrounding the find would draw wild-eyed salvors from the ends of the earth, drafted their concern into law.

"The state realized that unsupervised recovery of publicly owned artifacts and treasure from submerged sites by commercial salvagers was resulting in the destruction of the sites, and in many cases the loss of irreplaceable, scientific and historical information," according to the "Salvage Handbook."

Each year, the division sends out "hundreds" of salvage contract applications to prospective treasure hunters, explains archaeologist Jill Palmer. But only about 5 percent are ever approved. "It's a very expensive, complex business," says Ms. Palmer. "It sounds like fun to a lot of people, but when they see what we require of them, they have second thoughts about it."

In addition to standard contract expenses, well-equipped salvors need dive boats, scuba equipment and tools, some sort of underwater detecting device such as a magnetometer, and dive personnel.

A small expedition such as that undertaken by Soul Treasure Inc., a company that is working on an exploratory pre-salvage contract in the St. Augustine Harbor, might spend less than $1,000 a week for rental of two small boats and a couple of divers, according to Ms. Palmer. A full-scale brigade with a 160- foot ship and equipment, a paid historian, and 30 divers such as Mel Fisher's Key Westbased Treasure Salvors Inc. mith use can run up costs of over $3,000 a day.

Mr. Fisher is perhaps the best known of Florida's commercial salvors. His company is responsible for most of the 20 suits now challgenging the state in federal courts.

Mr. Fisher says he has spent more than a half million dollars in legal battles with the the state over ownership of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a rich 17th-century Spanish treasure ship. After nearly a lifetime of searching for the Atocha, Mr. Fisher found it 35 miles off Key West near the Dry Tortugas in 1971. The state, claiming the ship was in Florida waters, seized 25 percent of the booty, including some 1,847 silver coins and artifacts worth $2.3 million. Last summer, a federal judge ruled the wreck was in US waters and ordered the treasure returned to the salvors.

State officials such as Mr. Nall seem to feel that Mr. Fisher's victory resulted in the pending jurisdictional lawsuits, even though the Atotcha decision doesn't affect the current salvage law. "There is no question that these wrecks are within the state's jurisdiction," he says. "We feel the suits have no merit."

Treasure Salvors have since discovered the Margarita, a sister ship of the Atotcha, and recovered some $20 million worth of gold chains, silver plates, and artifacts including silver scissors and an ivory-handled knife. As a testament to the expense of professional salvaging, nearly half of that treasure will go to Mr. Fisher's investors, he says.

Underwater, the wrecks seldom look like anything more than a pile of ballast rocks or an unusual coral formation. teredo worms quickly destroy most of the exposed wood, and rapid coral growth covers what's left, including cannons and rigging. Most unburied metal is usually oxided and corroded, although gold objects can remain as bright as the day they went under water. Technological advances such as the magnetometer, underwater detector, and the vacuum-cleanerlike air lift, can help immeasurably in the excavation. But, most divers agree that there is generally no substitute for careful and tenacious digging by hand and identification by eye.

The uncertainty and expense of professional treasure salvage is a high enough price to pay without the added insult of a 25 percent surcharge right off the top, the salvors complain.

But the state is steadfast in its enforcement of the treasure laws, which officials insist are designed only to preserve and protect the historical legacy of the wrecks. "One hundred years from now, that [preservation] will be important," explains Florida Secretary of State George Firestone."If it's a finderskeepers kind of thing, those things won't be there in the future."

As federal judges prepare to hear the suits in Orlando and Miami over the next several months, most of the professional salvors have already pulled up anchor in the choppy coastal winter waters. Like the European captains who piloted rich treasure ships around this peninsula centuries ago, they are waiting for balmy spring waters to set sail.

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