A new international agreement to protect the wreck of the Titanic from destructive activities has now been signed by two parties: the US, which signed it in June 2004, and the UK, which signed in 2003. Under the accord, parties will regulate activities such as research and salvage that may disturb or harm the wreck site. The agreement will take effect once both parties enact implementing legislation – that is, once their national legislative bodies agree to be obligated by the accord.

The UK enacted such legislation last year; the US has not yet done so. Only those nations that sign and agree to be obligated by the agreement will have to abide it.

The accord relies largely upon jurisdictions already recognized under the UN Law of the Sea Convention, such as a nation’s jurisdiction over its citizens and vessels under its registry. “This agreement has been accomplished without asserting jurisdiction over the wreck itself as property or as a resource of the continental shelf,” says Ole Varmer, a lead member of the US delegation that negotiated the agreement with the UK, Canada, and France. (These are considered the four nations most closely associated with Titanic by the fact that it is a British-flagged vessel, jointly discovered in 1985 by a French-US expedition in waters off Canada’s east coast. France and Canada have not yet signed the agreement or enacted implementing legislation.)

Varmer says the Titanic accord may be “a very good model” for international cooperation regarding activities directed at natural features, such as deep-sea vents located in international waters. The wreck, located approximately 325 nautical miles off Canada, is well outside any nation’s jurisdiction over underwater cultural heritage. Under negotiation since 1997, the agreement designates the wreck site as an international maritime memorial.

The Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in 1912, killing nearly 1500 individuals and coming to rest 3600 meters below sea level. Since the wreck’s discovery in 1985, it has been subject to a mix of salvage operations, and has also been negatively impacted by filming and tourism activities. A 2004 expedition found significant recent damage had occurred to the wreck.

“Creeping coastal state jurisdiction”

There is no specific international framework for designating high-seas MPAs that would apply automatically to all nations, although a multitude of international agreements either offer some direct authority to manage resources outside national jurisdiction or provide elements that could be helpful in establishing high-seas MPAs. (See MPA News 5:4 for a discussion of high-seas MPAs.) Absent such a specific framework, the next-best option lies in bilateral or multilateral agreements such as this Titanic accord. To be effective, such agreements must have enough signatories to establish de facto global MPAs, recognized by at least those nations whose vessels and nationals have the ability to access the sites in question. Varmer says he hopes that Russia and Japan, which have the technical capacity to access the Titanic wreck, will respect the agreement and eventually become parties to it.

He says parties to the negotiations were concerned about the possibility of “creeping coastal state jurisdiction” occurring as part of the agreement, and sought to avoid that. It is in the interest of the US, UK, France and other maritime powers, he says, to ensure that no nation’s protection of underwater cultural heritage, like the Titanic, is used to assert new rights that could have potential political domino effects – such as, hypothetically, a nation extending its exclusive economic zone or territorial sea out to a wreck and declaring authority to manage underwater cultural heritage within that area. Although such novel moves could establish strong protection for the wreck, they would also destabilize the balance of interests that have been agreed upon in the Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC). Negotiators also had to ensure the agreement addressed LOSC rights to fishing, navigation, and the laying of cables and pipeline.

The Titanic accord states a preference for in situ preservation of the wreck, from which more than 6000 artifacts have already been brought to the surface and either displayed or auctioned. It forbids piercing of the hull for salvage purposes but allows licensed salvage from the wreck’s debris field, under a new system for documenting salvaged items.

For more information:

Ole Varmer, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1305 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910-3282, USA. Tel: +1 301 713 2967; E-mail: ole.varmer@noaa.gov

BOX: Titanic agreement available online

The international agreement to protect the wreck of the Titanic is available online at http://www.state.gov/g/oes/rls/or/2004/33709.htm.