Historic shipwrecks laws

The Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976  protects historic wrecks and associated relics, that are more than 75 years old and in Commonwealth waters, extending from below the low water mark to the edge of the continental shelf. Each of the States and the Northern Territory has complementary legislation, which protects historic shipwrecks in State waters, such as bays, harbours and rivers. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts can also make a declaration to protect any historically significant wrecks or articles and relics which are less than 75 years old.

The Historic Shipwrecks Act aims to ensure that historic shipwrecks are protected for their heritage values and maintained for recreational, scientific and educational purposes. It also seeks to control actions which may result in damage, interference, removal or destruction of an historic shipwreck or associated relic. Divers can use wreck sites for recreational purposes but relics must not be removed from the wreck site and the physical fabric of the wreck must not be disturbed, unless a permit has been obtained.

Currently 15 historic shipwrecks lie within protected or no-entry zones. These zones may cover an area up to a radius of 800 metres around a wreck site, and may be declared where circumstances place it at particular risk of interference. This declaration prohibits all entry into this zone in the absence of a permit. Permits are also required to undertake any activities otherwise prohibited or restricted by the Act.

Anyone who finds the remains of a ship, or an article associated with a ship, needs to notify the relevant authorities, as soon as possible but ideally no later than after one week, and to give them information about what has been found and its location. Historic shipwrecks and associated relics do not belong to the individuals who find them.

The Historic Shipwrecks Act also requires that a register of historic shipwrecks and relics be maintained.

The transfer, possession and custody of material such as relics, including coins, from historic shipwrecks, are also regulated. Historic shipwrecks and their associated relics are protected even if you came into possession of this material long before the Historic Shipwrecks Act existed.

The Historic Shipwrecks Act is administered by the Australian Government in conjunction with Delegates in each of the States, the Northern Territory and on Norfolk Island. To find out information about permits and protected zones, you should contact the Commonwealth Minister's practitioner in your State or Territory.

The Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 is currently being reviewed.