By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Wreck salvagers and other heritage preservers will this week move to form a non-profit organisation that will work with the Government to combat “unbelievable” piracy that threatens a potential multi-million dollar industry.
Anthony Howorth, past chairman of the Bahamas Association of Treasure Salvors (BATS), told Tribune Business that the proposed Blue Heritage Association aimed to work “in partnership” with the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corporation (AMMC) to preserve both wreck and historical sites throughout this nation.
Warning that the Bahamas would incur an “enormous” economic/heritage opportunity cost if it failed to curb the piracy of artifact-rich underwater wreck sites, Mr Howorth said Friday’s meeting - at which the Blue Heritage Association was first discussed - again exposed the “frustration” among the salvage community.
He added that confusion over whether the Government has actually lifted the moratorium on underwater exploration and salvage continues to persist, with 18 applicants yet to hear whether their licences have been approved some two years after all documents and the $1,000 fee were submitted.
“It wants to cover as much as possible in an amicable way with the Government,” Mr Howorth said of the proposed Blue Heritage Association. “We can see the administrative problems, and we have the money to help, but no one wants to receive it.”
Tribune Business understands that the AMMC is seeking to raise up to $22 million for the preservation of historic sites in the Bahamas. It has established the Historic Bahamas Foundation as a vehicle to raise such financing, its first goal being Collins House’s $13 million renovation.
Mr Howorth told this newspaper that awarding the first five underwater wreck salvage licences would provide the AMMC with $500,000 immediately, via the performance bonds those selected would have to lodge.
“We want to be friendly, we want to help,” he added. “That [Collins House] just shows they need money. We know that, and we tried to find ways to give them money, but we could not give it because it’s [the Foundation] not configured correctly.”
The Historic Bahamas Foundation is US-domiciled, and Mr Howorth said it had the potential to attract multi-million dollar philanthropic donations from wealthy Americans who could write-off the sums for tax purposes.
Friday’s meeting at the Bahamas Air/Sea Rescue Association (BASRA) headquarters was attended by wreck salvage licence applicants. And this Wednesday’s gathering is designed to “map out a strategic plan” and formalise the Blue Heritage Association’s creation.
Mr Howorth said the mood among attendees was favourable towards the Association’s creation, but “frustrated” over the wreck salvage licence situation.
“The meeting brought up the point of lack of regulations,” he told Tribune Business, “where 100 per cent of the artifacts you recover have to be given to the Government, and there’s no way of the Government giving you your 25 per cent share in a reasonable time. And there’s no system of valuation to do that.”
Mr Howorth suggested that the explorers and AMMC split the valuation burden 50/50, with the former engaging international experts to assist in the valuation of artifacts recovered from seabed wrecks.
Explaining that the Bahamas has much to lose from allowing the status quo to persist, he added: “The stories coming out at the meeting of the piracy going on, and persons helping themselves, was unbelievable.
“One person said he knew of a group of Americans who had been coming here for 20 years, and they have only been caught twice. What is leaving the country? It’s not as if we haven’t warned the Government about that in the last two-three years.”
Mr Howorth said there was currently much speculation about a shipwreck find off the Berry Islands, and the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RDF) “catching red handed” a Bahamian-flagged vessel engaged in non-permitted underwater salvage. Most of the recovered items were alleged to have been handed over to the Defence Force.
Tribune Business has previously reported how unregulated wreck exploration is depriving the Bahamas of a multi-million economic boost, and potential new industry, plus its cultural heritage and historic treasures.
And the ongoing confusion over whether the Government’s moratorium on licensed exploration remains in place is further aiding this environment.
Asked about this, and the status of the 18 licence applications submitted to the Government in 2012, Mr Howorth replied: “I wish we knew.
“Rumour has it that one licence has been issued. That’s very surprising, and we want to get to the bottom of that and ask the AMMC if it’s true. It was said to have happened two-three weeks ago.”
He added: “We want to go into partnership; we’re not opposing them. All they’ve got to do is sign a lease, and we’ll show them how to do it without piracy going on.”
This issue received particular attention at Friday’s meeting, Mr Howorth adding in a statement: “Of major concern was the uncertain position regarding the lifting of the moratorium on the issue of search and salvage licences.
“The fact that over 18 applicants’ applications for licences have been accepted with payment of the $1,000 licence fee over two years ago, without the statutory required response within 90 days, was a matter that needed to be addressed on a joint basis.”
Tribune Business has previously revealed the Bahamas’ potential as a hotbed of wreck salvaging and heritage recovery activity, with observers suggesting the industry’s proper regulation would create a multi-million dollar industry and employment opportunities.
This newspaper reported how Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration, a “world leader” in shipwreck salvaging that was featured in a Discovery Channel documentary, was negotiating with the Government over conducting treasure-hunting exploration in Bahamian waters.
The company, which was seen by TV viewers recovering 1,218 silver bullion ingots from a World War II wreck 4,700 metres deep off the Irish coast, met Prime Minister Perry Christie and other Bahamian government officials about conducting similar operations in the wreck-rich Bahamian waters.
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.
And 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.
“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,” the report said.
Mr Howorth said the Blue Heritage Association’s committee will also examine how the Bahamas can maximise its other mineral and natural resources, such as salt, aragonite, oil and fishing rights.