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Divers Gird for Battle on Shipwreck Ownership

October 13, 1987|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

Dropping 25 feet to the bottom, Steve Lawson began weaving his way lazily through the kelp toward the Palos Verdes shore.

The sand below him was strewn with rusted debris--the wreck of the Dominator, a World War II liberty ship that went aground in 1962. The vessel is a favorite stop for the California Wreck Divers club, of which Lawson is a member. Pounded for 25 years by surf, the wreckage now is a heap of rubble spread thinly over several hundred yards.

But one man's rubble is another man's treasure. Lawson, 22, drew a small hammer from a bag and swam into the mess, tapping and scratching here and there. A decaying round wheel caught his eye for a moment, but a tap of the hammer revealed it to be iron, so he let it be.

Later he found something worth keeping: a crusty old cage lamp with a brass insulator. "I have another one at home," he explained after the dive. "I want to compare the two."

Legislation Feared

Lawson's hobby is collecting brass artifacts from shipwrecks. His fear is that pending federal legislation may seriously hamper that pursuit.

The proposed law would affirm state ownership of shipwrecks deemed historic. While it probably would not apply to relatively recent wrecks such as the Dominator, divers say, it would overturn hundreds of years of admiralty law and end forever the carefree climate in which organizations such as California Wreck Divers thrive.

"Our reason for being would cease," said Jack Ferguson, a wreck diver for 17 years and dive master of the 500-member club. "It would turn us into outlaws."

Said Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-FLa.), whose bill has created the ruckus: "There are hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of century-old artifacts being (lost). What (people are) doing is . . . chipping away at Plymouth Rock."

At the center of the controversy are the estimated 50,000 to 100,000 shipwrecks lying in waters regulated by the state and federal governments. For at least 200 years, they have been governed by federal admiralty law, which asserts that whoever finds a wreck has the right to salvage it and retain at least a portion of the take.

While some states have enacted their own shipwreck legislation, the courts have been inconsistent in declaring whether state laws take precedence over admiralty law. In California, for instance, would-be treasure hunters must obtain permits from the State Lands Commission, which requires them to share half their take with the state if the salvage is worth more than $25,000, or a quarter of it if the value is less.

But until recently, federal officials say, many states have been insensitive to the historic value of shipwrecks. Commercial salvors have often challenged state laws, and sports divers have routinely ignored them.

Bill Gleason, editor and publisher of the 220,000-circulation Skin Diver magazine, estimates that of the 1.2 million sport divers in the United States, about 400,000--including an estimated 56,000 in California--regularly dive on shipwrecks. In addition, he said, perhaps 100 full-time commercial salvors rely on wrecks to earn their livings from salvage.

The current controversy began in 1971, when Mel Fisher, a California chicken farmer turned treasure hunter, made a spectacular discovery off the Florida coast. He found the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a Spanish galleon that sank in a hurricane in 1622 bearing a vast treasure in gold and silver.

A long series of court battles ensued, pitting Fisher against the state of Florida and the federal government on the issue of who owned the spoils, now estimated to be worth more than $400 million.

So far, Fisher, who owns a commercial salvage company in Key West, has overcome most of the challenges. The courts have upheld admiralty law by denying government claims to the treasure. But in 1979, Rep. Bennett, who comes from Jacksonville, introduced a bill declaring old shipwrecks to be state-owned.

The proposal foundered that year, as have similar bills Bennett has introduced in every session of Congress since. This year, however, supporters of such legislation are more optimistic because key opponents have lost their seats and the recent discovery of the sunken liner Titanic has sparked public interest in the salvage issue. Divers throughout the country are taking Bennett's efforts seriously.

Federal Ownership

His bill would essentially assign ownership of historically significant shipwrecks--defined as any wreck included in or "determined eligible" for the National Register--to the federal government, which would then transfer title to the states in which the wrecks were found.

Each state would be required to develop guidelines to protect its shipwrecks. Although the bill would require states to guarantee sport divers the continued opportunity for "recreational exploration of shipwreck sites," it would also give states the power to prohibit divers from removing artifacts.

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