New Study and Website on Underwater Cultural Heritage Law

Posted In: Deep Thoughts

By Brian Jordan (BOEM) and Ole Varmer (NOAA)

The protection and management of UCH is a challenging topic that involves the interplay of United States (U.S.) statutes, maritime law, international law, and often complex issues regarding what law applies when and against whom it may be enforced.  At the same time, there is ongoing risk from activities that may directly or indirectly destroy UCH, such as unscientific salvage or looting, energy development, dredging, and bottom trawling. No single statute comprehensively protects UCH from all of these human activities.  Sorting through all of these complexities, until now, has been daunting at best.  A partnership between BOEM and the Department of Commerce (DOC) has produced new tools and a new website to address these issues.

In January of this year the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) published the Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH) Case Law Study prepared by DOC’s International Section of the Office of General Counsel in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  The UCH Law Study and the corresponding website are the brainchild of Brian Jordan (BOEM), and was funded by BOEM to assist in understanding the current levels of legal protection for UCH discovered on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).

The case law study provides an analysis of existing laws protecting UCH on the OCS, identifies gaps in protection, and provides three recommendations on how to address those gaps, including proposals to amend the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and/or the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.  The study was accomplished through a partnership with Ole Varmer (NOAA) and troops of interested partners within the Department of Commerce and NOAA.

The NOAA Coastal Services Center developed the Ocean Law Search website and database as part of the study, which contains a copy of the final study, summaries of the statutes and key cases related to UCH Law Study, as well as links to the various bills, reports, and other documents describing the legislative histories of the more relevant statutes.  These tools were developed for use by practitioner of law, history, archaeology, students and others interested in preserving our underwater cultural heritage for present and future generations.  We hope that this study and website will be a useful new tool in that effort.

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