Finders, keepers: Treasures lost at sea can be claimed by those who discover them — unless the US government is involved

Divers underwater at Antilla shipwreck in Aruba.
Aruba Tourism Authority
  • When treasures are lost at sea, there are legal questions about who owns the remains of a shipwreck.

  • The maritime law "rule of finds" and "rule of salvage" offer international guidance for such matters.

  • However, the United States passed a law that claims all remnants of wrecks near its waters.

When treasures are lost at sea or begin washing up on shore — like the Yeti coolers appearing along the coast of Alaska from the Zim Kingston freighter that spilled shipping containers in rough seas last October — the legal ownership of the items comes under question.

In general, maritime law — also called admiralty law — is the default set of conventions and treaties that determines how conflicts or shipping issues at sea are handled by the international community. Under these laws, the "rule of finds" and "rule of salvage" offer international guidelines for lost items.

The rule of finds assigns the first finder of shipwrecks or treasure as the new owner and is usually referenced when an item has been lost at sea for some period of time.  The rule of salvage, however, obliges finders of more recent or valuable wrecks to attempt to return items to their original owner, though finders are entitled to compensation, according to Journal Storage, an electronic archive of leading academic journals.

Onboard, items of value are insured so their loss at sea is covered, giving businesses little incentive to try to recover their lost inventory — as is with the case of the coolers – so a general "finders keepers" mindset is frequently adopted for consumer items recently lost at sea. The problems become more complicated, however, when it comes to historical wrecks.

Critics such as scholars Paul Hallwood and Thomas J. Miceli have argued the vagueness of the rules of finds and salvage "provides inadequate incentives both to locate and properly salvage historic wrecks," and "fails to provide for the protection of the scientific value of wrecks once they are found."

"The ocean is the world's greatest museum," marine archaeologist Peter Campbell told The BBC.

In 1987, the United States implemented the Abandoned Shipwreck Act in an attempt to preserve historical wrecks, overriding maritime laws. The Act states that any shipwreck "located within three nautical miles of the US coastline and in the internal navigable waters" becomes property of the United States.

But further complications to the rights to sunken ships and their cargo can occur when multiple countries lay claim to a wreck. In such cases, like the San Jose, a Spanish galleon sunk by British ships 300 years ago and found in 2015, the legal battles may play out for years.

"It's a very complex picture," Robert Mackintosh, a lawyer and archaeologist at Southampton University told The BBC. "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."

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