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Treasure Salvaging Can 'Wipe Out National Debt'

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

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.”

Comments

Dell 1 year, 5 months ago

I would like to Thank the Tribune for sharing this knowledge with the Bahamian people.

There has been no word from the Government when, or if, Salvage permits will ever be issued. What is the delay? In my opinion a great opportunity for the Bahamas tourist industry, local Museums, and millions in revenue from the Salvage of Treasure shipwrecks is being lost by every day of delay. Dell

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Alexandre 1 year, 5 months ago

I cant believe it. The same old arguments keep popping up. Treasure hunters used them everywhere, from Cape Verde to Mozambique, to Portugal. In the former two cases, occasional, small time scale looting by local divers was indeed stoped.... but why? Because large time treasure hunting wrecked all the wrecksites and looted everything. And why keep only 25%? If Bahamians were smart, they would form a Government agency composed of archaeologists and divers, pay them an average wage, get them on the water, cooperate with international academic entities, pair up with Spain, do proper archival research - and keep 100% of it!

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Alexandre 1 year, 5 months ago

An archaeologist colleague of mine compiled this list regarding treasure hunting. Enjoy it:

  1. Can treasure hunters do archaeology with high standards?

No. The aim of treasure hunting is profit and treasure hunting companies depend on investor's money. In a normal competitive environment investors prefer companies that yield better returns on their investments. It is an indisputable fact that careful excavations are more expensive than the quick salvage of artifacts with market value, and companies that try to follow good archaeological standards will not survive long in any informed market.

  1. Can archaeologists and treasure hunters work together?

No. Like any other professionals, archaeologists are bound by a deontological code. No deontological code accepts archaeologists selling artifacts to pay for the excavations. And no deontological code allows archaeologists to lower their standards of practice so that their bosses can make a better profit.

  1. Can archaeology be conducted by private organizations?

Yes. The Institute of Nautical Archaeology is a good example. Entirely private, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology has pioneered the field of underwater archaeology for over three decades without ever selling one artifact.

  1. Why should archaeological collections be kept together?

For several important reasons:

Because artifacts are normally part of assemblages and alone are frequently meaningless;

Because artifacts are always different from many points of view;

Because the study of assemblages of artifacts is always evolving;

Because as technology evolves artifacts can yield more information if tested with new techniques;

And because there is no need to sell them.

  1. Should less developed countries allow treasure hunting ventures in their waters when they cannot afford a high standard of archaeology?

This is one of the most preposterous arguments of many treasure hunting companies and representatives. This argument implies that poorer nations should not aim for development, education, or environmental protection (and their cultural heritage is directly related to these aspects).

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Alexandre 1 year, 5 months ago

  1. Are shipwrecks a scarce resource?

Yes. A very scarce one. Only a certain number of ships were lost in each period, by each culture. To destroy them all now is to destroy the hope that future generations may look at their cultural heritage with their own eyes.

  1. Given the fact that sometimes, if not protected, shipwrecks can be looted by sport divers, destroyed by fishing trawlers, or just decay with time, should it not be advisable to allow treasure hunters to salvage them?

No. To allow the salvage of shipwrecks is to add an additional factor of destruction to those above mentioned. It is a fallacy to pretend that treasure hunters would only aim at shipwrecks in danger of being destroyed by nature, fishing trawlers, or sport divers.

  1. Are treasure hunters a real threat to underwater cultural heritage?

Yes. Many shipwrecks have been systematically destroyed by treasure hunters searching for valuables. We know far more about the Roman and Viking vessels than we know about Iberian vessels, so violent has been the destruction of these ships by treasure hunters.

  1. Is treasure hunting really profitable as an investment?

No. There are two types of treasure hunters. There is a small, silent minority who really finds and rescues precious cargoes, and that goes largely unnoticed by the general public. The large, noisy majority who advertises its activity in the press, on the internet, and through PR agencies in search of ignorant investors rarely rewards its investors. P. T. Barnum once said that "a sucker is born every minute," and sadly many treasure hunting companies have ravaged the finances of many ill-informed investors who found it exciting to go search for sunken treasures in exotic seas.

  1. Is there a future for treasure hunting?

No. More and more countries are forbidding this activity in their national waters. Also, most museums have adopted a ban on the purchase of items salvaged from shipwrecks.

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Dell 1 year, 5 months ago

Folks, allow me to introduce my friend Alexandre. He is known Internationally for his egotistical rants which are of no credit to Archaeological academia. It's interesting that an article in the Tribune, has stirred up so much hostility in him as to infer that the Bahamian government, and people are stupid, and reference to "A sucker is born every minute? What has this man ever done for the Bahamian people that he feels he can speak in such a manner? I apologize that he can at times be fanatical, but overall he is an excellent Archaeologist, worthy of being hired by any Shipwreck Salvor.

I do not have all the details but from my viewpoint the Bahamas government is doing every thing right. To the best of my understanding the Shipwreck Salvage permits will be issued to Bahamian organizations, and corporations who have to meet a strict criteria and commit to providing both Archaeological, and important Geophysical data which will be obtained from the hundreds of square miles of ocean floor that will be systematically scanned electronically as a requirement for obtaining a permit. This is time consuming work that is too expensive to be undertaken by the government without the help of private enterprise.

Each lease holder is required to have at least one Marine Archaeologist in their group to comply with Government rules, regulations and Archaeological guidelines, who file their daily activity reports to the Bahamian Archaeologist designated to oversee the activities of the Salvage lease holders, and the compilation of data.

From what I see, the Bahamanian Government's plan makes this a win, win, situation for everyone.

Who knows, in this day of electronic technology, scanning the ocean floor for Shipwrecks, might discover the remnants of past civilizations. What a publicity coup that would be for the Bahamas. Shipwreck Salvors, could even invite Alexandre, to witness the worlds amazing discovery. Dell

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TalRussell 1 year, 5 months ago

PM Christie should NOT follow Hubert's red shirts regime mistaken steps to move ahead with licensing treasure hunters to become legalize to pillage and to bring further destruction to our shipwrecks and sunken archeological sites in Bahamaland's waters.

Forget their damn sales pitch lies, for they come with but one reason and for one reason only into Bahamaland's waters, to seek gold and other long hidden, valuable sunken treasures.

You better believe, like the numbers "bosses" and the oil executives have done so will the treasure scavengers be lining up outside PM Christie's office door to collect their licenses.

Why is it that both this PLP government and the former Hubert regime seem so prepared to license just about anything under the legal or even illegal sun, even if it promises but a short term economic injection for the bahamian people?

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Dell 1 year, 5 months ago

Mr Hartnell's, article already explains some of the reasons Shipwreck Salvage would benefit the Bahamas, in the short term. The long term benefits will depend on new discoveries that attract Free media attention to support tourism, and new enterprises that develop as a result of this endeavor.

Because of the voliltility of the ocean much of the remains of historic Shipwrecks will not survive another hundred years and that portion of our past will be lost forever to the future generations.

Troughout the Shipwreck moratorium, local owned Bahamian musuems were unable to obtain pemits to legally recover historic shipwreck artifacts from their own local waters while outsiders were quietly looting Treasure from Bahamian waters. Shipwreck Musuems are international tourist attractions that benefit the local economies. This is a new day, and even if it should be only short term, Shipwreck Salvage provides a new opportinty that I hope will not be squanderd.

The Albert Lowe musuem, on Green Turtle Cay, Abaco has recently opened a Historic Shipwreck section with a few donated artifacts. They have met all the Government criteria, including an Archaeologist, and applied for a permit to salvage shipwreck artifacts from their Harbour and Ocean waters just off shore. They are still awaiting a permit to do so.

Bahamian companies and organizations are those standing in line to receive Shipwreck Salvage permits. Should Bahamians be denied this opportunity? Dell

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Private_Sector 1 year, 5 months ago

Following is a letter written by Taffi Fisher Abt daughter of world famous, legendary treasure hunter Mel Fisher

"From: Taffi Fisher Abt, President Mel Fisher Center, Inc. RE: “Oceans Act of 2000”

“Economically speaking, there is a domino effect that touches many industries not usually associated with salvage such as cultural tourism (including airlines, hotels, museums, rental car agencies, advertising, etc.) and the literary and film production fields and in turn many smaller industries are also affected. In the last decade, in the Sebastian, Florida area alone, my company has engaged employment for at least 1,500 people in fieldwork, systematically excavating the wrecks more than 8,000 days, recovering in excess of 38,500 artifacts with a monetary value in excess of $12,000,000 .00. From these artifacts, we donated more than 1,500 (most of the best) to the "People of the State of Florida" for their museums and collections valued in excess of $2,500,000. Tallahassee has a wonderful exhibit and the State sends exhibits all over the nation. We also have a traveling exhibition. Tens of thousands of school children and youth groups attend our exhibitions. We have also had hundreds documentaries, books, periodical articles, and even school texts written with this venture as their main subject. This in turn has generated substantial income to the industries of writers, news crews, TV and movie production companies, advertising agencies, moving companies, exhibit designers, etc. Copies of these books and videos such as Discovery Channel, National Geographic, A&E, etc. then get sold in bookstores, video stores, spreading not only economic gain but also knowledge and education of the general public.

In the last 8 years, we have enjoyed an attendance in excess of 105,000 visitors to our Sebastian museum alone (which showed demographically as an unsuccessful area for tourism) since opening in Dec. of 1992. More than $500,000.00 in attendance was generated back into commerce for expenses, employing another 80 people. Our museum/gift store has generated sales in excess of $2,600,000 over the last decade, and again, that money went back into the general mainstream of commerce. On this expedition alone in the past 8 years, our corporation has spent more than $2,600,000.00 in expenses at dive shops, marinas, fuel docks and grocery stores, welders, diesel engine mechanics, etc….again money that went back into the general mainstream of commerce.

Remember, ALL of the above facts are solely related to eleven shipwrecks in one small 60 square mile patch of earth.

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Private_Sector 1 year, 5 months ago


The Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society & Historical Museum in Key West Florida has over 200,000 visitors annually. Again, these visitors spend millions of dollars annually in the local economy.

The idea that private sector and good archaeology cannot co-exist is pure poppycock!!

All Florida private sector "treasure salvors" work with an archaeologist and perform artifact recovery with the practice of the State's "Archaeological Guidelines For Salvaging Historic Shipwreck Sites"

and then there is this....

Treasures retrieved from sailing vessels wrecked in treacherous waters off the Florida coast are to be analysed by experts at the University of Huddersfield. They won’t be getting their hands on gold, silver or casks of fabulous jewels. But to members of the Arms and Armour Research Group, the artefacts they will examine are equally precious.

The group, which includes historians, scientists and specialists in weaponry, has been forging important international links. And the latest is with the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society, a not-for-profit organisation which runs a massively popular museum at Key West, in Florida. It is named after its benefactor, a diver who combed the seas off the Florida coast in search of sunken ships. One of his most spectacular finds was a Spanish galleon named the Atocha, sunk in 1622.

But although Mel Fisher was a professional treasure hunter, he also dreamed of a museum and educational facility that would enable the public to learn about his undersea world. It was established in 1982 and Mel Fisher – who died in 1998 – endowed it with a large collection of objects that he had discovered and they help to attract visitor numbers of 200,000 a year.

The Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society continues its underwater research. “But for us it’s not about finding treasure but finding historical events that helped shape the way that we look at the past,” says Corey Malcom, who is the Society’s Director of Archaeology. “So for us a slave ship, for example, is just as valuable as a treasure-laden galleon.”

So if a museum where the public can see, touch and learn about cultural history is your proper idea of what should happen to submerged cultural resouces voice your backing of private sector salvage.

"The finding of a great treasure from the days of the Spanish Main is not the cherished dream of only the United States and Florida citizens; countless peoples from other lands have shared such thoughts. It would amaze and surprise most citizens of this country, when their dream, at the greatest of costs, was realized, the agents of respective governments would, on the most flimsy grounds, lay claim to the treasure."

---Judge William O.Mehrtens

U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Florida

August 21, 1978 Ruling Against the State of Florida

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Archaeologist 1 year, 5 months ago

It is a sad day when the archaeological community feels that they cannot work wth private sector salvors to rescue nautical history. The TRUTH (though our friend Alexandre Montiero doesn't care to share it with you) is that without private sector salvage, archaeologists would only have about 20% of the material they have to study....the other 80% comes from the private sector. Archaeologists and academics do not have the funding required to excavate and protect 1 shipwreck a year. Any good scientist understands that if you have a small army of private sector people ready to search for and collect data for you on their own dime...you take that help if you have a brain in your head.

What Alexandre forgets is that this shipwreck material is corroding away to nothing on the sea floor. If it is not found, rescued, conserved and stabilized....it WILL absolutely be gone forever. Which is better, private salvors saving shipwrecks for profit and archaeology gets the data and 25% of the artifacts, or archaeologist sit at their desks waiting for funding while the archaeological data dissappears via corrosion, looting and damage from trawling. The answer is easy if you use your brain....

The economic impact to the Bahamas would be substantial and long term. There are plenty of shipwrecks for both archaeologists and salvors, no need to be greedy. There isn't enough museum space for all of the artifacts anyways, and when those artifacts are silver and gold, you have additional costs of storing, securing and protecting them. Who will pay this cost? Alexandre? I think not, the Bahamian people will pay it. Academic Archaeology's antiquated views simply do not work any more. They barely worked when the governen funding was there, now that governments have cut out funding for historical ventures, we are left with two choices. Let our history rot away on the ocean floor, or let talented and well trained salvors recover the history following archaeological guidelines, and sell redundant artifacts to fund their very expensive activities.

There really is only one answer, and its not hard to see if you take the blinders off.

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Dell 1 year, 2 months ago

EDITED TO FIT COLOMBIA – The Government of Colombia today passed Senate bill No. 125 of 2011 - which will regulate Colombia’s Underwater Cultural Heritage. The bill states that contracts can now be made with marine exploration companies to search for and salvage shipwrecks in Colombian watersAs explained by the Colombian Minister of Culture, Mariana Garces. The rationale for the project by the Minister of Culture is that Colombia has neither the technology nor the resources to do these kinds of explorations that are highly expensive. To Garcés, this law will rescue the riches submerged and leverage them for the benefit of all Colombians and citizens of the world that will be able to see them in marine or naval museums. "The spirit of this bill was to create mechanisms to access some heritage objects that would otherwise be unattainable. Colombia has 1,600 km of coastline on the Caribbean coast and 1,300 km in the Pacific side. While not all these shipwrecks were carrying treasure when they went down, it is estimated that some 800 tons of gold and 12,000 tons of silver are scattered among the wrecks. In today’s money that comes to nearly 176 Billion Dollars, or about 332 Trillion Colombian Pesos. This is based on the current spot price for both Gold and Silver, and does not take into consideration the market value of shipwreck coins and bullion which is often considerably higher. Also not figured into these calculations is that of unregistered treasure. The Spanish were experts at smuggling treasures back to Spain in order to avoid paying taxes. There is a new paradigm emerging in archaeology with the passage of this law and Colombia is now on the leading edge. The Islands of The Bahamas is also in the process of implementing a very similar program to recover and preserve its underwater cultural heritage.

A similar and very successful model was first implemented back in the 60’s in the U.S. State of Florida, when treasure hunters first discovered shipwrecks of the 1715 treasure fleet in the shallow waters along Florida’s east coast. State archaeologists worked with the treasure hunters and established a permitting program, and this program eventually lead to the discovery of many other shipwrecks. As a direct result of the work of treasure hunters and the State archaeologists, the State of Florida is still receiving 20 percent of the treasure hunters finds today, and Florida museums across the state are filled with amazing shipwreck artifacts seen by thousands of residents and tourist every day.

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