The Protection of Wrecks Act (1973) allows the Government to designate a wreck to prevent uncontrolled interference.
Designated sites are identified as being likely to contain the remains of a vessel, or its contents, which are of historical, artistic or archaeological importance.
You can search for protected wreck sites on The National Heritage List for England.
Identifying the site
A 'Statutory Instrument' identifies the location of the site and also the extent of the restricted area used to ensure the protection of the site. In some cases the site is indicated by a buoy, usually yellow and inscribed 'Protected Wreck'.
Suitably placed notices sometimes indicate sites close to the shore. Some are warning signs; and others are public information notices giving a brief explanation of why the wreck is important and a description of the site.
All protected wrecks are listed in the annual Admiralty Notices to Mariners and are marked on appropriate UK Hydrographic Office charts.
Protecting the wreck
It is a criminal offence to do any of the following in a designated area without a licence granted by the appropriate Secretary of State:
- Tamper with, damage or remove any part of a vessel lying wrecked on or in the seabed or any object formerly contained in such a vessel.
- Carry out diving or salvage operations directed to the exploration of any wreck or to removing objects from it or from the seabed, or using equipment constructed or adapted for any purpose of diving or salvage operations. This is likely to include deployment of remotely operated vehicles.
- Deposit anything including anchors and fishing gear which, if it were to fall on the site, would obliterate, obstruct access to, or damage any part of the site.
It is also an offence to cause or permit any of the above activities to be carried out by others, without a licence, in a restricted area.
Generally speaking licences from the Secretary of State will only be issued to people who are considered to:
- Be competent and properly equipped, to carry out operations appropriate to the historical and archaeological importance of a wreck and of any objects contained or formerly contained in a wreck,
- Have any other legitimate reason for doing things in the designated area which can only be done with a licence.
Where a person is authorised by a licence to carry out diving or salvage operations, it is an offence for any other person to obstruct them, or cause or permit them to be obstructed, in doing anything which is authorised by the licence.
Bathing, angling and navigation are permitted within a restricted area provided there is no likelihood of, or intention to, damage the wreck or obstruct work on it. Anchoring on the site is only permitted for licensed activities or in cases of maritime distress.