By Jennifer McKinnon

Recently Chair of ACUA, Dr. Jennifer McKinnon, had the opportunity to follow up on an increasingly important topic – the protection of sunken US shipwrecks abroad – with Dr. Wendy Coble of the Maritime Administration’s (MARAD) History and Heritage Program. Dr. Coble was able to shed more light on the recent federal register notifications stating that shipwrecks and cargoes are not abandoned and remain the property of the United States Government. Further, no activity should occur at these shipwreck sites without MARAD’s express permission. No doubt this notification provides additional support for the protection of US submerged cultural resources and shines light on the illicit activities of looting and illegal scrapping of WWII shipwrecks as well as disturbance of war graves. Have a look at the interview below where Dr. Coble explains more about what MARAD does to protect submerged heritage.

McKinnon: What is your position and title and what do you do at your organization?

Coble: As the Senior Historian and acting Federal Preservation Officer, I’m responsible for the Maritime Administration’s (MARAD) History and Heritage Program.

Based on the National Historic Preservation Act, and “Preserve America” (EO 13287, March 3, 2003), all federal agencies must designate a Federal Preservation Officer (FPO). The FPO ensures agency compliance with all federal preservation laws and manages the program in such a manner that preserves the agency’s history and heritage for the public benefit. There are various aspects to the MARAD History and Heritage Program. These include preserving and protecting MARAD’s history and cultural heritage, collectively referred to as “Heritage Assets.” In my role as Senior Historian, I assist the Agency in determining what items to retain for the purpose of professional archiving, conserving, and curating. This includes involvement in the loan or transfer of Heritage Assets, and ensuring they are well-maintained. Gathering and sharing oral histories of merchant mariners is an essential part of the work, as is collecting, and preserving historical MARAD documents. The duties of interpreting and disseminating historical information about MARAD, answering questions, conducting research, and writing historical papers and publications about MARAD’s history further illustrate the breadth and depth of these duties. The work is often focused on our Ready Reserve Force and that of our National Defense Reserve Fleet. The Agency has many shipwrecks that are Heritage Assets, so we must also focus on protecting these valuable cultural resources.

The FPO also assists the administration in determining if grant projects will affect historic properties and if so, consulting with State Historic Preservation Officers, Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, and other interested parties to find ways to mitigate those affects.

McKinnon: What is MARAD and how does it intersect with heritage management and protection?

Coble: MARAD’s mission is to foster and promote the U.S. Merchant Marine and the American maritime industry to strengthen the maritime transportation system. This includes landside infrastructure, the shipbuilding and repair industry, and labor, to meet the Nation’s economic and national security needs. MARAD was established in 1950 and is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. We support the technical aspects of America’s maritime transportation infrastructure, such as ships and shipping, port and vessel operations, national security, environment responsibility, and safety. We promote the use of U.S. citizen owned waterborne transportation and ensure that its infrastructure integrates seamlessly with other methods of transportation. MARAD also maintains a fleet of merchant vessels in reserve to provide surge sea lift capacity during war and national emergencies and is responsible for disposing of ships in that fleet, as well as other non-combatant Government ships as they become excess to the needs of the U.S. Government.

In addition, MARAD is actively engaged with maintaining the overall health of the U.S. Merchant Marine. Commercial mariners, vessels, and intermodal facilities are vital for supporting national and economic security, so the agency provides support and information for current mariners, extensive support for educating future mariners in specific training Academies such as the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and State Maritime Academies, and programs to educate our nation’s young people about the vital role maritime operations play in the lives of all. A portion, (18.75%) of the proceeds from the sale of obsolete ships supports Maritime Heritage Grants which are administered by the National Park Service (NPS). (54 USC 308701-380707). Last year, NPS awarded 2 million dollars to State Historic Preservation Officers in support of Maritime History preservation and education projects. All projects must use matching nonfederal dollars with in kind support.

McKinnon: What kind of shipwrecks and underwater heritage are associated with MARAD?

Coble: MARAD and its predecessor organizations have owned thousands of ships of many different support types throughout its history. MARAD has also insured certain vessels and their cargoes and subsequently owns these vessels and cargoes by right of subrogation under the insurance policies. Although used during wartime or to support military operations, these ships were never warships. They were property of MARAD and its predecessor agencies. One law addressing MARAD’s authority over this property is 46 U.S.C. § 57111.

Most of the potentially historic shipwrecks are World War II losses although there have been many both before and after that conflict that could be considered historic. In addition to ships and insured cargoes, MARAD or MARAD’s predecessors owned, there are U.S. Government cargoes managed by MARAD on shipwrecks not owned by MARAD that we must responsibly manage.

McKinnon: What are some of the pressures shipwrecks face that MARAD is concerned about?

Coble: MARAD has an obligation to responsibly manage its Heritage Assets. This includes protection from looting, damage, destruction, or eradication. These shipwrecks are tangible remnants of our collective past and MARAD has the honor to protect them where possible. In addition, some of the wrecks contain war graves of those who died serving their country during conflict. MARAD will not give its permission for activities at its shipwreck sites unless the proposal sufficiently addresses how these activities will allow these war graves to be treated with the utmost respect. Illegal salvage of shipwrecks is a problem worldwide, and as a result many valuable cultural resources are being destroyed. By sharing the information in our Federal Register Notice we wanted all to understand that MARAD and MARAD predecessor organization shipwrecks and cargoes are not abandoned and remain the property of the United States Government. No activity should occur at these shipwreck sites without MARAD’s express permission.

McKinnon: The recent federal register notification from MARAD indicated that any activity on a MARAD shipwreck site needs to receive MARAD’s consent. What would that process entail for researchers who want to investigate a site?

The first step is to contact MARAD’s FPO to discuss the proposal and purposes of any activities at the shipwreck site. The FPO will see that the appropriate offices within MARAD are notified and receive copies of the proposal. MARAD officials will then contact that proposer point of contact.

As stated, we prefer in situ preservation and no disturbance, but we recognize sometimes disturbance or recovery in the case of some cargoes is necessary. As such we’d like to know what the requestor wishes to do, how they’re going to do it, and by what means, and the specific professionals or entities involved. If recovery is contemplated, the plan should include professional methodology involving a qualified principal investigator, a research proposal and a conservation plan with a long-term curation or exhibit plan. Providing full details in the request will speed the process.

Once a request is received, it will be reviewed by our many specialists and may be returned for answers to new questions. Decisions on requests are returned as soon as possible in writing. The timeframe for a decision varies depending on the complexity of the request. The decision will consider all applicable law to include the NHPA and NEPA, for instance, and a final report will be required if approved.

For more information, see the register.

SS Quartet, struck Pearl and Hermes Atoll in the northern Hawaiian Islands on December 21, 1952 (Credit: Bishop Museum) Read more about the shipwreck here.

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