In wintertime, a certain amount of sea freight ends up washed overboard when a vessel hits stormy waters, and occasionally a sinking vessel may have to be abandoned to the mercies of the ocean. This has been a fact of maritime life for centuries, and it raises the interesting question: who can claim ownership of goods lost at sea?
Yahoo News reports that maritime law is usually evoked on the occasions when lost treasure is discovered at sea, or begins to wash up on shore. This includes the ‘rule of finds’ and the ‘rule of salvage.’
The rule of finds states that whoever discovers a shipwreck or lost cargo first is the legal owner, usually in cases where a long period of time has elapsed between the spillage or wreck and the discovery. The rule of salvage states that more valuable or recent discoveries should be returned to the original owner if possible.
However, in many cases, this doesn’t happen, because the value of the lost items is covered by insurance, so businesses have little incentive to retrieve their lost property. In the case of more historical incidents, the law is a little muddy. In the US, the Abandoned Shipwreck Act was introduced in 1987 to try and clarify the situation.
This laid claim to any shipwreck “located within three nautical miles of the US coastline and in the internal navigable waters”. However, the BBC reports that something called ‘sovereign immunity’ may also be applied in these cases. This gives the country where the ship was registered certain legal rights over ownership, regardless of location.
When the wreck of the San Jose was discovered off the coast of Columbia in 2015, reports circulated that it contained treasure worth $17 billion, making it one of the most valuable historical underwater finds ever. Although Columbia claimed the discovery, the ship is a Spanish galleon, which is thought to have been sunk by the British navy around 1720.
The find is said to include gold, silver, and precious gems, which were ‘collected’ from Spain’s South American colonies. This raises interesting questions about who has the legal right to lay claim to the treasure.
Robert Mackintosh, a lawyer and archaeologist at Southampton University, told the BBC: “It’s a very complex picture, as a lot of states and people can have a lot of different and often competing interests in wrecks, interests which have their origins in various different bodies of law.”
He added: “Under international law, a country has complete sovereignty over these waters and so essentially can do what it wants in terms of taking ownership. There are further legal ramifications if the wreck lies in international waters.”
“For example, the ship’s original owner has a viable right to ownership. But that right can be superseded by the country which owns the national waters in which the ship was discovered.”
Several parties are still vying for the ownership of the treasures of the San Jose, including Spain, Columbia, and the native South American people who claim that their ancestors were enslaved by the Spanish to mine the precious metals and gemstones.
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