By NEIL HARTNELL Tribune Business Editor A POTENTIAL $8-$10 billion industry lies beneath Bahamian waters if its development is handled correctly, a local archaeological salvage expert yesterday warning against an 'Open Doors' policy that would allow foreign companies to leave this nation with the bulk of recovered artifacts and profits. Nicholas Maillis, president of Long Island-based Maillis Marine Research & Recovery, urged the Government to mandate that foreign salvagers joint venture with Bahamian companies/teams on underwater explorations, thus ensuring at least some of the economic benefits remained here. Warning that underwater archaeological exploring and salvaging could "lure gangsters" if the proper laws and regulations, and their enforcement, were not in place, Mr Maillis told Tribune Business that the industry's proper development "could hit the green button" for the Bahamas' tourism development. By placing recovered artifacts of historical significance in a National Museum, he suggested it would add a cultural/historical niche to the Bahamian tourism product, something that should have been "done a long time ago" but has been missing for years. "It could turn our town into one of the most attractive historical destinations in the world," Mr Maillis told Tribune Business of a Bahamian underwater salvaging/archaeological exploration industry. "We're sitting on New World treasures and New World history. It's all here, every page known to man. You can't have a museum big enough to put in what's out there. Every page is out there in our waters, and can be brought to the surface, cleaned and presented to the public, making the Bahamas more attractive. "It could hit the green button that's needed to turn this place into a very attractive place for people coming to see what they wanted to see. If handled right, it could make us jump forward to where we should have been a long time ago - a tourist destination with something worthwhile to see. "It could definitely give us a lift. The Government is going to get some dollars to help fix the Out Islands, the roads, maybe build a bigger prison, who knows." A 25-year industry veteran, Mr Maillis said he had salvaged centuries-old ships such as the former brig, Bullpic, which sank in the Great Bahama hurricane of 1866. The salvaging took place off north Eleuthera in 1992. He and the other salvagers split the proceeds, 75/25 in their favour, with the Government, and their efforts recovered "enough artifacts to fill up a whole corner of a National Museum". And Mr Maillis told Tribune Business: "There is over $8 billion of stuff lost in our waters, and that's only the stuff recorded. We see anywhere between $8-$10 billion, from what we know is recorded as lost." Apart from known wreck sites and those recorded in historical records, the Bahamas had also been a well-known base and refuge for pirates, meaning the number of potential exploration sites was likely to be considerably more. However, Mr Maillis said he and his sons, who themselves have spent 10 years in the industry, had not been consulted by the Government on the recently-passed amendments to the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Act, which lifted the 15-year moratorium on salvaging in Bahamian waters. While still attempting to obtain a copy of the revised Act via their attorneys, Mr Maillis and his sons, in an e-mail to Tribune Business, raised concerns about it creating an 'open doors' approach that might ignite "an international gold rush on Bahamian waters", ultimately stripping this nation of its historical artifacts and associated income. Questioning the 75/25 split between the salvager and the Government, especially where the former was a foreign company, Mr Maillis and his sons told Tribune Business: "In an industry potentially worth billions to an economically struggling nation, we question the logic in allowing 75 per cent of our nation's heritage to become the legal property of a foreign salvage company. "Not only is this a great loss of our cultural heritage, but there is an almost certain likelihood that commercial profits generated by foreign salvage companies would ultimately leave our country, and thus also create an economic loss. If foreign salvage companies are permitted to be involved in this industry for certain reasons, they should be required to be in a joint venture with a Bahamian archeological salvage company." In his interview with Tribune Business, Mr Maillis suggested the Government mandate that foreign salvagers joint venture with trained Bahamian underwater exploration and archaeological teams, who could spot any wrongdoing. "The Government does not understand the business, does not know how it should be, the good and bad points," Mr Maillis told Tribune Business. "They don't know what's out there and which direction to turn to. There's a lot of untrustworthy foreign companies out there. "This business does lure great wealth. That's how the stuff got there in the first place, and in the past 25 years I've been approached by numerous people, some with good intentions, some blunt gangsters and crooks who are out to get something, whether it's there or not. "It does attract ill-minded people, and the concern is that if these [foreign] groups come in, you don't know who they are. Local teams should be trained to go on these vessels to see if crafty business is being done." In their e-mail to Tribune Business, Mr Maillis and his sons called on the Government to designate the archaeological salvaging of historic shipwrecks within the Bahamas' Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as an industry reserved for Bahamian-owned companies only. They argued that raising the financing for such ventures was, unlike the resort industry, well within the means of Bahamians. "I know there are a lot of foreign teams out there wanting to work in the country, and take the opportunity away," Mr Maillis told this newspaper. "They need to mandate joint ventures; that these people join with local teams in joint ventures. "If it's going to be leaving the country, well, what good is it? It's only helping the foreign companies. If they're allowed to work, they have to choose a Bahamian team they merge with to share the profits and share the work. They shouldn't just get up and go with it." Mr Maillis, though, emphasised that he was not seeking to be protectionist and exclude foreign companies from participating in a Bahamian underwater salvage/archaeological exploration industry. "We're not trying to block anyone coming in," he added. "But it [the proceeds] should be distributed in that territory where the work is done." In their e-mail, Mr Maillis and his sons were more forthright. They said: "While we applaud the Government on its foresight in addressing the vast potential of the underwater archeological salvage industry, we are deeply concerned that interest is being raised to the point where an indiscriminate 'open- doors' policy could result in an international gold-rush on Bahamian waters, instigating negative international criticism and thus facilitating the industry's return to a state of moratorium. "Unlike the high value 'mega' and 'anchor' resorts in our country, which depend exclusively on immense foreign investment, this high value industry is well within the reach of Bahamian capital investment capabilities. "There are interested Bahamians who have a love for the maritime cultural history of our nation, knowledge and expertise in this field, valuable wreck-sites, and the vision for the development of an industry of historical preservation and education in the Bahamas. We therefore strongly suggest that like the real estate, fishing and retail industries, historic shipwreck archeological salvage be allocated as an industry reserved for Bahamians." Mr Maillis yesterday warned that apart from gold, all artifacts were eventually worn away by the environment if they were not eventually retrieved and put on display. Hurricanes passing through the Bahamas were another potential destroyer of wreck sites. And, after these storms had gone, many artifacts lay exposed, attracting foreign salvagers who came into the country and "picked them off" before returning home, leaving the authorities none the wiser. "This is picking paradise," Mr Maillis added ruefully.