SHIPWRECK SALVAGING IN FLORIDA WATERS

A Forum by John Brandon

This is the first in a four-part series dealing with the latest updated information regarding salvaging shipwrecks in the Florida waters. Recently there has been positive interaction between the state of Florida and the shipwreck salvagers, interaction that hopefully will soon lead the way to Florida becoming the “cutting edge” of shipwreck salvage. Our Secretary of State, Sandra Mortham, has become the “White Knight” that hopefully will make Florida the showcase for other states to follow as Salvors and Archaeologists work together in preserving history.
John Brandon has been salvaging sunken treasure since he was 13 years old, at first under Mel Fisher’s guidance, and now as a leader in the Florida salvaging community. Now with over 30 years of salvaging under his belt, he has become instrumental as spokesman for the shipwreck salvage community in its dogfight to keep NOAA from putting an end to commercial salvaging in Florida waters. Prior to a vote on the Marine Sanctuary plan, John presented a statement to the Florida cabinet outlining the salvors’ side of the controversy, and as a result the final drafted plan reflects major positive changes in favor of the salvage community. John Brandon’s statement is printed here in its entirety.

HSSPC Cabinet Aides Statement

My name is John Brandon and I represent the Historical Shipwreck Salvage Policy Council, HSSPC, which represents historical shipwreck salvors.
Our council was formed in May 1995, at the suggestion of NOAA, at a meeting between the salvors, NOAA and the State on that day in Marathon in the Florida Keys. All of the salvors present at this meeting were against the National Marine Sanctuary management plan as written. It was the intent that the salvors council provide input to the Sanctuary plan that would relate to the submerged cultural resources section of the plan. We have endeavored long and hard and have provided many suggestions backed with hard facts, to make the plan more user friendly, archeologically and historically accurate, and more fiscally responsible as relates to the spending of tax dollars. Unfortunately, many of the suggestions were not used, even though a majority of NOAA’s own citizen advisory council voted for these changes.
We recommended that the plan view Florida’s salvors, some of the most successful in the world, as a resource in the continued exploration of our maritime heritage in the Keys. Consider for a moment that Florida has one of the most historically important and intrinsically valuable collections of the New World shipwreck artifacts and treasure in the world, virtually all of it provided by the private sector, in addition to volumes of accurate on-site archeological data and historical research. This information has been disseminated around the world by the private sector making Florida and the Keys shipwrecks some of the most famous and well-researched. This has all been accomplished primarily by the private sector, without the help of NOAA, or the use of tax dollars.
In fact, NOAA has no proven track record to indicate it is even capable of being the lead agency in managing the shipwrecks of the Florida Keys in a manner that will ensure that this vast acquisition of knowledge continue to be distributed to the public as it has for the past 50 years, and in a manner that will not burden the taxpayers.
Florida, with its long and successful history of shipwreck management, asking NOAA to help manage its shipwrecks in the Keys doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, especially when you consider that the state of Florida loved for years, at taxpayers’ expense, for the passage of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, which allowed states to manage shipwrecks off their coast without Federal intervention, and which passed in 1987, only to turn around now and through the Marine Sanctuary management plan give much of the control right back to the Federal government. Much of the plan seems to indicate that the State and Federal government intend to go into the financially high risk shipwreck treasure hunting business using our tax dollars to back government archeologists who have little or no experience in dealing with the types of shipwrecks typically found off Florida. We do not believe the public wants its tax dollars spent in this fashion.
We would again like to stress the use of private sector historical shipwreck salvors, using risk venture capital, and working with the archeological community in a cooperative manner, under reasonable and applicable archeological guidelines, as a primary contingent of the plan, which at this time it is not. These guidelines would also require a reasonable, representative cross section of the recovered treasures and artifacts to be held in the public trust for future display and study purposes, all of which Florida is currently doing.
To be accurate, we need to acknowledge that the final draft of the plan does include a number of suggestions made by the salvage council. However, the plan, in its present form, still remains so broad and ambiguous as to not allow for an accurate interpretation. The way the Marine Sanctuary plan is now structured it will make it extremely difficult for the private sector to continue to recover and bring history to the public. Depending upon what entity interprets the plan, it could easily fluctuate from allowing private sector historical shipwreck research and recovery to continue, to halting all such endeavors, and placing the burden of exploration and recovery squarely on the backs of the tax payers.
We would also like to acknowledge the participation of Secretary of State Mortham and her staff, particularly Paul Mitchell, Jim Miller of the State Department of Historical Resources, Ole Varmer of NOAA’s legal department, and Bruce Terrell, NOAA historian and archeologist, in their ongoing efforts to try and reach a compromise agreement. We are continuing these efforts even now and I hope that we will make substantial additional progress. We would urge the Florida cabinet not to sign off on the Marine Sanctuary management plan, or certainly the submerged cultural resources sections, until we’ve had sufficient time to come up with the best possible plan for the tax payers and the people of Florida. Further, we believe that the best case scenario would be for Florida to retain its management of its shipwrecks independently of NOAA and the Marine Sanctuary.
As we have tried to work things out with NOAA our efforts are time and again thwarted and everyone’s hands are tied because of the mountains of Federal rules, regulations and red tape. Even when everyone agrees to the most logical course, we cannot proceed because of the Federal rules, regulations or even philosophical differences. Around November of 1995, Secretary of State Mortham wrote an open letter to the public which was published in a number of newspapers state-wide. The first paragraph states, “There isn’t much that government does that can’t be done better by the private sector. In fact, most of the time, the best thing government can do is get out of the way and let private sector work.” She went on to end her letter by stating, “I challenge every unit of government, at the local, state, and federal level, to join me in the task of cutting unnecessary, burdensome, and excessive regulation. We can do much better.” If there ever was an instance where this philosophy should apply it is in the recovery of Florida’s historical shipwrecks.
As to the overall Marine Sanctuary Plan, the shipwreck salvors must remain on the record as being against it for a number of reasons. First, it not just a sanctuary that is being created, but a non-elected form of government is being put in place. The Marine Sanctuary is huge in its coverage with a constant population of thousands of people right in the middle. NOAA will be able to levy user fees and create fines as it sees fit, in addition to creating new rules and regulations. Although public input is provided for, nowhere in the plan does it provide for binding public input.
Another Marine Sanctuary, proposed for the state of Washington, the North West Straits National Marine Sanctuary, also met stiff local opposition and was voted against in local referendums. The locals carried the day and the state of Washington chose to go with local alternative plans to manage the environment. The San Juan County Marine Resources Committee was formed to work with existing agencies and regulations to take care of the environment and is making progress.
When these things are taken into consideration along with many others, such as the fact that NOAA and the Marine Sanctuary has driven a wedge and created a furor in a Keys Community that was famous for its tolerance and being laid back, it becomes apparent that the rationale of the Marine Sanctuary, as structured at this point, needs to be carefully considered to the point of seeking a viable local alternative.
Several years ago, Governor Chiles sought to build, or work on, a cook shack on his property. He ran into a mountain of bureaucratic rules, regulations and red tape, many of which apparently seemed to him to be unreasonable. Although they were undoubtedly created because someone thought they were needed to protect the environment, ecosystem, public...or were necessary for some other reason. Shortly after that, the governor issued Executive Order 95-74, in an effort to cut over burdensome rules and regulations, and which starts out, “Citizens’ frustration with government is at an all-time high. The frustration stems not from the job government has set out to do, but the manner in which government has gone about achieving that goal through a complex system of overly-precise rules and regulations.”
The Marine Sanctuary Management plan will certainly lead to exactly what the governor was talking about.
We are all in favor of protecting the environment and the ecosystem. However, it’s too bad Governor Chiles doesn’t have a cook shack in the Florida Keys, the Marine Sanctuary plan might be much different than what is before us now. John Brandon.


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