By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas could “wipe out its national debt” if it moves to permit wreck/treasure salvaging and exploration, Tribune Business was told yesterday, one executive estimating $6 million could be instantly injected into the economy if pending licence applications were approved.
Anthony Howorth, the former chairman of the Bahamas Association of Treasure Salvors (BATS), who has been assisting applicants applying for licences from the Government, said one client had pledged to spend $600,000 in the Bahamas if their plans were given the go-ahead.
Other sources familiar with the situation told Tribune Business that at least 17 applications for survey licences had been submitted to the Government - the first step in wreck/treasure exploration in Bahamian waters.
The applications were submitted after the House of Assembly, under the former Ingraham administration, passed the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Act, and accompanying regulations, that govern how artefacts are to be recovered from Bahamian waters and the division of resulting profits.
Tribune Business understands that the Government’s plan is to issue five licences in the initial tranche of approvals, and a further five at a later date, making for a total of 10.
However, none have been approved to date, and sources close to the process are concerned about potential bureaucratic delays and red tape holding-up the process.
Mr Howorth, meanwhile, emphasised that the groups he was working with were “interested in protecting the underwater sea environment in the Bahamas”.
He told Tribune Business that numerous wreck sites, where valuable artefacts of historical importance, plus gold bullion, lay, were “being pirated all the time”.
“That’s the whole problem,” he said. “Our objective is to assist the Government in protecting these sites, and we have an archaeologist on our team to do it properly, the scientific way.
“All the items brought up have to be given to the Bahamian government, processed at the leaseholder’s [salvager’s] expense, and the profits after that are to be divided into the 25 per cent the Government keeps, and 75 per cent that the salvager keeps.”
And Mr Howorth added: “It’s a big industry. My client says he’ll spend $600,000 in the Bahamas, and if you multiply that by 10 [number of licences thought likely to be approved], that’s $6 million.
“We’re looking at the Bahamas benefiting by $6 million immediately, and at this time people are pirating the sites for all of the major finds, and the Bahamas gets nothing.”
The Government’s decision to impose a moratorium on wreck/treasure exploration, prior to passage of the Act, was intended to stop major financial, historical and cultural haemorrhaging.
Another Bahamian executive involved with the licence process, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Tribune Business yesterday that he was heading to Zurich on April 18 to attend a private auction where artefacts recovered from Bahamian waters were set to be sold-off.
Apart from the financial loss to the Government and Bahamian people, the pirating of numerous wreck sites is also depriving this nation of its culture and history.
The source said: “This is a $100 million industry a year without question. If they [the Government] were smart, this could wipe out the national debt.”
The source pointed to the wreck of the Nuestra de Signora Maravillas, thought to have gone down with $8 billion in gold in shallow waters off Grand Bahama’s West End, plus the Capitana, believed to have sunk with an estimated $2 billion in golds and emeralds from Colombia, as to the kinds of riches thought submerged in Bahamian waters.
“Just half of what could be found in these waters could wipe out our debt,” the source said.
An idea of what the treasure/wreck salvaging industry could generate for the Bahamas, in terms of economic impact, is hinted at by a 2008 survey of what it has done for Florida.
The survey, prepared for the Mel Fisher Centre, found that state’s marine salvage sector had directly generated economic activity worth $70.9 million per annum, and some 550 jobs. Earnings produced by the sector stood at $26.2 million.
And, when added to the indirect benefits, the report estimated that the marine salvage industry generated $159.7 million in total economic activity for Florida, coupled with 1,329 jobs and $53.9 million in earnings.
“Employment in the marine salvage industry generates per capita wages of $40,600 (2006),”the report said.
“This compares favourably with the 2006 Florida average wage of $38,500, for all employees. Marine salvage wages are 5 per cent higher than the Florida average among all workers.
“The consultant estimates that for every direct dollar of economic output associated with the existing employment activity of the project, it is estimated that an additional $1.25 in economic activity is generated throughout the state.
“Museums, retailing operations and the donation to Florida of more than 38,000 salvaged items of historic and cultural value have benefited Florida and its citizens, as well as citizens from across the world who have visited here.”