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The marine environment is almost ideal for the preservation of artefacts and, until relatively recently, it also provided complete protection from destruction by man. However, the aqualung has made most shallow underwater sites accessible, leading to widespread plundering. Current deep-sea bed technology now threatens deep water sites.
There is a need for immediate international action to preserve the man-made environment, alongside the natural one. The enunciation of legal rules to protect the underwater cultural heritage is a complex issue, involving a matrix of interests and laws, both international and national.;Two core issues are jurisdiction and ownership. The ownership question can be complex. The legal status of historic shipwrecks and their cargoes is a tangle of wreck, salvage and inheritance law, differing from one national legal system to another.
There are no international policies on the ownership of cultural property, which is left open to domestic legislation. But the matter is sufficiently important to warrant an effective, international protection scheme. The text examines the inadequacies of the traditional regime and the contours of an emerging body of international and (mostly European) regional law.