Maritime Archaeology - Legal Requirements

Departmental resources | Updated 1 month ago

Legislation

From 1 July 2019 Australia's historic shipwrecks, sunken aircraft and their associated relics over 75 years old are automatically protected by the Commonwealth Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018 (UCH Act). Shipwrecks and sunken aircraft less than 75 years old, and other types of UCH sites may be protected by Ministerial declaration.

As with the previous Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 that it replaced, the UCH Act automatically protects all shipwrecks older than 75 years that lie within Australian waters, that extend from the low tide mark/ Territorial Sea Baseline to the edge of the continental shelf and/ or Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The UCH Act additionally automatically protects sunken aircraft over 75 years old that lie in Commonwealth waters (i.e. outside State waters, or within Commonwealth marine areas). The UCH Act also protects all artefacts on land directly associated with historic shipwrecks or sunken aircraft. More information on the UCH Act can be found on the website of the Commonwealth Department of the Environment and Energy.

Western Australia has its own Maritime Archaeology Act of 1973 (MA Act), which protects maritime archaeological sites on state land and in State waters, including enclosed bays, harbours and rivers. Other than shipwrecks, maritime archaeological sites include shipwreck survivor camps, relics associated with historic ships such as lost anchors, historic maritime infrastructure and whaling stations.

The links to the Acts are provided below for information only, and a hard copy from the Government Printers should be obtained for use in legal matters:

Western Australian Maritime Archaeology Act 1973: [Click here to access link]

Commonwealth Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018: [Click here to access link

Wreck and Relic Reporting

If you have found a new shipwreck or aircraft site, or other underwater cultural heritage site or relic, please let us know. This information will assist our Museum’s maritime archaeologists in the inspection, identification and future management of sites and relics. Reporting new discoveries of underwater cultural heritage and maritime archaeological sites is a legal requirement under both Section 40 of the Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018, and under Section 17(1) of the Western Australian Maritime Archaeology Act 1973.

The on-line notification form can be found here.

Shipwreck Coins and Relics-Your Legal Obligations

The Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018 (UCH Act) protects shipwrecks, aircraft and their associated relics in Australian waters. It is illegal to disturb or remove items from historic shipwrecks or aircraft. However, the law does provide ways in which members of the public and dealers can legally transfer custody of registered coins and relics, while noting that these artefacts remain the property of the Australian Government. The only shipwreck coins and relics legally in circulation are those which have a registration certificate.

On 1 July 2019, any certificate issued under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 became invalid and a new certificate is required under the UCH Act. To obtain a valid certificate, please provide notification of possession online via this link. Any enquiries should be sent via e-mail to UnderwaterHeritage@environment.gov.au.

The UCH Act does not prevent private possession of certified shipwreck coins and relics, nor their sale, but it does regulate their transfer. A permit system ensures that historic sites and relics are protected from interference, and provide a means for keeping track of the location of articles that are part of Australia's heritage. Permits are required before transferring custodianship, gifting, selling, exporting or importing, or otherwise disposing of a protected shipwreck coin or relic.

A permit application should be made on-line through the Australasian Underwater Cultural Heritage Database [click here to access].

A coin dealer or any other person who buys, or in any other way comes into possession of a coin or relic related to Australia’s underwater cultural heritage must provide on-line notification of the transfer within 14 days following the transaction.

In addition to the requirements of the Commonwealth Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018, the Commonwealth Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986, makes it illegal to remove an historic relic from Australia without an export permit being issued under this Act. Dealers should also be aware of State legislation which covers historic shipwrecks, and related relics. For further information about the Commonwealth Act of 1986 please visit this website or contact:

Cultural Property Section
Department of Communications and the Arts
GPO Box 2154
Canberra ACT 2601
Email: movable.heritage@arts.gov.au
Phone: 1800 819 461