By NATARIO McKENZIE
Tribune Business Reporter
A senior government official yesterday seemingly ‘wrecked’ salvagers’ hopes for speedy licence approvals, revealing that a moratorium remained in effect and suggesting their motives did not necessarily align with the Bahamas’ national interests.
Dr Keith Tinker, the Antiquities, Monuments and Museum Corporation’s (AMMC) director, told Tribune Business that a moratorium on wreck searches and salvage leases in the Bahamas remains in effect for now, as the necessary protocols to prevent “the rape” of historic sites still need to be put in place.
While a growing list of frustrated wreck salvagers have in recent times questioned why the Government has dragged its feet in acting on their license applications, Dr Tinker said: “The moratorium is still in effect. As far as we have been advised, it has not been lifted.
“I know that the process of consideration by the Bahamas government is ongoing as to if they are going to lift it, and when they are going to lift it. That’s as much information as we are aware of. That’s the sum total of it.”
Dr Tinker’s comments, though, are at odds with the position taken in today’s Tribune Business (see Page 2B) by one of the 18 salvagers with an outstanding licence application before the Government.
Apart from stating that the moratorium had been lifted, the salvager said he had been waiting since April 2012 for his licence approval, which was supposed to come within 90 days.
“The salvage business is a very expensive undertaking, requiring large financial assets, boats, equipment and manpower, and none of these can just sit around for indefinite periods of time,” the salvager wrote.
“The crew members, archaeologist and doctor have families, and they need to have a specific deadline. It has been over two years since our project was supposed to commence and needless to say, our credibility, as well as that of the Bahamas Government, has worn thin.
“Ever since the outset, we have received nothing but empty promises, excuses and delays. Consequently, but not surprisingly, our investors are becoming impatient as time rolls on and they see no sign of a licence.”
The salvager questioned why the Government was dragging its feet, given that it would receive 25 per cent of the profits from any treasure or artifacts recovered. Jobs and the Bahamas’ cultural heritage would also receive a boost.
Yet Dr Tinker said: “There was a justification for the moratorium. In essence, the waters of the Bahamas was literally being raped to a large extent, where salvagers would come in and ruthlessly take but call it exploration.
“They would actually destroy a lot of shipwrecks in search of treasure without due consideration for the public, which is understandable because these guys are not in the business of preservation; that’s our job.
“Apparently, the former administration thought that the moratorium should be put in place until the situation could be examined, after which time the proper protocols could be put in place with a view to lifting the moratorium, but with those protocols in place so that the Bahamian people gain the maximum benefit from the exercise. That, I understand, was the reason for the moratorium. Those protocols still have to be put in place. There are some decisions that still have to be made. “
Dr Tinker added: “If, in fact,s the moratorium is lifted and we are authorised to move forward with the proper protocols, the oversight of any exploration and recovery falls under the auspices of this office, in conjunction with other support agencies like the Royal Bahamas Police Force, who can be identified to work with us to ensure that whatever protocols are articulated are enforced.”
Some 18 applications to search for ancient shipwrecks in Bahamian waters have reportedly been submitted to the Government. The Bahamas= has been viewed as a hotbed for wreck salvaging and heritage recovery activity, which is said to have the potential to create a multi-million dollar industry and employment opportunities.
The Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Amendment Act was passed in the House of Assembly in 2011, and repealed the Abandoned Wreck Act. The legislative amendments were designed to protect potentially valuable Bahamian artefacts that may be recovered, enabling them to be retained for museums to protect this nation’s cultural heritage, as well as serving as a possible tourist attraction.
A 75/25 split is conditional, with the Government getting more depending on the artefact’s cultural value. Among prime Bahamian exploration targets are likely to be 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.
“I understand what the salvagers are saying,” said Dr Tinker. “These are business persons, and what’s in their interest is not necessarily what’s in the national interest of the country, no matter what they say.
“Their interest is in the bottom line of their business; our interest is in preservation for the Bahamian people, and that has to come before everything else.”
He added: “Salvagers today has become a dirty term because they are not always careful with their exercises when they go into the waters. They are not specifically looking to conserve or preserve, that may come secondary.
“They are looking to recover what they deem valuable. We like to use the UNESCO term ‘underwater archaeology’. In the underwater archaeology you are chronicling what exists down there, and then beyond that you are presenting that research.
“Whatever happens has to be done by proper international codes of conduct that are acceptable to the Bahamas government. That wasn’t always done in the past. Even when there was recovery in the past, the Bahamas government never got their fair share. That’s just the reality.”
The AMMC is a quasi-government agency that falls under the auspices of the Office of the Prime Minister, and will be responsible for oversight of exploration and recovery exercises in the Bahamas.