I’ve located a shipwreck and a pile of really cool artifacts! Can I take it?
Well, that depends. There are a number of different laws pertaining to shipwrecks and salvage.
How will I know which laws apply?
The first thing to do is determine whether or not the shipwreck is a military craft. If it is, it is covered by the Sunken Military Craft Act. All military craft (including aircraft) are protected from excavation or takings unless they have been expressly abandoned (stricken from the official fleet).
It’s definitely not a military ship – does that mean I can take stuff from it?
The next thing to determine is your location. If the shipwreck and artifacts are located within three nautical miles of the coast, then it is under the jurisdiction of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act. If the shipwreck has been officially abandoned, then it is the property of the state, and may not be excavated without specific permission. If the shipwreck has not been abandoned, then it still belongs to someone; taking objects from owned shipwrecks is against the law.
What about for a ship farther out?
If the shipwreck is located further than three nautical miles from the coast, its fate is determined by admiralty law. The absolute most important thing to understand is that any takings in this jurisdiction require a claim in admiralty court. If you take anything from a shipwreck without first approaching an admiralty court, you’re likely to lose any claim of title.
How do I approach an admiralty court?
Federal district courts make admiralty law decisions. North Carolina is included in the Fourth Circuit and is divided into Eastern, Northern, and Western districts. All coastal actions would be heard in the Eastern District, which holds court in Raleigh, Elizabeth City, New Bern, Wilmington, and Greenville. The best option if attempting to claim an artifact of unknown origin/possession would be to contact a lawyer with specific knowledge of admiralty court salvage cases.
I found another object, this time with no shipwreck. Can I keep it?
This is a bit trickier. The Abandoned Shipwreck Act defines a “shipwreck” as “a vessel or wreck, its cargo, and other contents.” It may be possible that the object belongs to a nearby shipwreck, making it subject to any regulation associated with the wreck. It’s also possible that the object was dumped from a moving ship, removing it from the context of a shipwreck. Furthermore, there’s the issue of location as discussed above.
An artifact just washed up on the beach near my house. Can I take it?
It depends on where on the beach it is. If it has washed all the way onto your property, you may have the right to title. If not, however, the artifact lies on state lands, and belongs to the state.
My dog dug up an artifact in my back yard. Can I keep it?
Finally, I have good news. Anything that lies within your property is yours – this includes property gained from erosion seaward of the dune line. The only thing that may prevent you from claiming the artifact immediately is the size and depth. The Coastal Area Management Act has a permitting process regarding development along the coast. This is relevant because the discovery of an entire shipwreck (which has happened) would require substantial excavation, which requires a CAMA permit to proceed.