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Admiralty Law, Florida, Jurisprudence

Treasure Salvage Industry Impacts of Recent Decisions Upholding Wreck Sovereignty

By Davis George Moye, Journal of Transnational Law & Policy Member

Florida is a major center for commercial treasure salvage.  Countless wrecks have littered its waters since colonial days, and it is home to some of the most successful salvors in the world, such as Mel Fisher’s Fisher Salvors, which has recovered hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold and silver, and Odyssey Marine Exploration, whose aggregate finds exceed $1 billion.[1]

Critics fear recent case law may dampen this industry.  Under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, the federal government granted states title to any abandoned wrecks in state waters[2] and Florida has enacted laws creating a regulatory framework to responsibly govern salvage.[3]  However, federal courts constitutionally have jurisdiction over admiralty cases[4] and federal judicial procedure forbids attachment, arrest, and execution of sovereign wrecks—the remains of vessels that belonged to a sovereign state.[5]

Formerly, courts granted salvage rights when governments, most notably, Spain, failed to assert property rights over wrecks.[6]  This stance has changed in the past fifteen years, since the Fourth Circuit denied treasure salvors and the Commonwealth of Virginia title over two wrecks in Virginia waters because the Spanish government asserted a claim.[7]  Specifically, the court held the United States’ duties to Spain under treaty as a friendly nation supersede Virginia’s title claim under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act.[8]

In 2011 the Eleventh Circuit also declared Spanish sovereign vessels immune from arrest in admiralty court in Odyssey Marine Exploration. v. Unidentified Shipwrecked Vessel.[9]  Many Spanish treasure galleons lost in Florida’s waters belonged to the Spanish crown.  Because Florida is central to treasure salvage, there have been fears that the Eleventh Circuit’s holding in Spain’s favor may have eliminated a multi-billion dollar industry.[10]  The full effects have yet to reveal themselves, but salvors have begun to negotiate salvage agreements with sovereign wrecks’ governments.

After locating the wreckage of H.M.S. Victory in 2008, Odyssey negotiated a salvage agreement with the British government in early 2012.[11]  The agreement transferred ownership of the wreck to a government-owned charity, the Maritime Heritage Foundation, whereby the Maritime Heritage Foundation agreed to pay Odyssey a commission on the artifacts it recovers.[12]  Odyssey could not reach a similar agreement with the Spanish government in the case of Nuestra Señora de las Animas (the Mercedes).[13]  Nonetheless, Odyssey attempted to salvage the Mercedes without the Spanish government’s permission, incurring over $1 million in Rule 11 sanctions in the Middle District of Florida.[14]

The order granting sanctions estimated Mercedes’ value at $600 million dollars.[15]  With such rewards, even $1 million in sanctions may not deter some salvors.[16]  Odyssey’s recent actions indicate sovereign immunity has dampened salvage efforts little.  Rather, it has made salvors more furtive.


[1] Odyssey Marine Exploration, http://www.shipwreck.net/ (last visited Oct. 6, 2013); Mel Fisher’s Treasures, http://www.melfisher.com/default.html (last visited Oct. 6, 2013).

[2] Abandoned Shipwreck Act, 43 U.S.C. § 2101 (1988).  Historical wrecks often fall into this category.  Situations where a true owner has not abandoned the vessel will be described in further detail.

[3] Historical Resources Act, XVIII Fla. Stat. § 267.031 (2008).

[4] U.S. Const. art. III, § 2.

[5] 28 U.S.C. § 1609 (1976).

[6] Treasure Salvors, Inc. v. The Unidentified Wrecked and Abandoned Sailing Vessel, 569 F.2d 330, 337 (5th Cir. 1978).

[7] Sea Hunt, Inc. v. Unidentified Shipwrecked Vessel or Vessels, 221 F.3d 634, 641 (4th Cir. 2000).

[8] Id.

[9] Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. v. Unidentified Shipwrecked Vessel, 657 F.3d 1159, 1166 (11th Cir. 2011).

[10] Id.

[11] Odyssey Marine Exploration Executes Agreement with Maritime Heritage Foundation for Admiral Balchin’s HMS Victory Shipwreck, http://www. shipwreck.net/pr240.php (last visited Oct. 10, 2013).

[12] Id.

[13] Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. v. Unidentified Shipwrecked Vessel, 2013 WL 5408413, at *1 (M.D. Fla. Sep. 25, 2013).

[14] Id. at 13.

[15] Id. at 1.

[16] Id.

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