Frequently Asked Questions

Both state and federal law obligate the State of Michigan to manage the submerged cultural resources lying on the bottomlands of the Great Lakes for the optimal benefit of all the citizens of the state. These resources potentially range from prehistoric Native American village sites to the wrecks of modern iron ore carriers and ocean-going freighters. They lie in shallow water and in the deepest reaches of Michigan's 38,000 square miles of the Great Lakes bottomlands. These are unique and irreplaceable resources.

Shipwrecks are a wood and steel chronicle of the history of naval architecture on the lakes. The pilings of thousands of abandoned docks tell of a time when transport by water was as important as transport by land. While these abandoned resources are collectively owned by the people of Michigan, relatively few individuals have direct access to them. Unfortunately, some of these persons can and often do damage or even destroy artifacts that are important to Michigan's history.

A basic understanding of why submerged cultural resources need to be protected and how the state attempts to manage and preserve them is essential to ensure that these important resources are not lost forever. It is important to remember that the State of Michigan's bottomland preserve system is unfunded and that preserves are not "state parks." In order to address many of the issues connected with the management of these resources lying upon Michigan's Great Lakes bottomlands, the following summary is set forth in a question and answer format:

1. Do state or federal laws restrict the access of divers to shipwrecks?

No. Michigan law, Part 761 Aboriginal Records and Antiquities, 1994 PA 451 as amended (MCL 324.76101), specifically provides for sport diving access to shipwrecks. The federal Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 (43 U.S.C. ß2101 et seq.) requires that each state must allow "reasonable access" to shipwreck sites. "Reasonable access" is defined in the federal statute as "guaranteed recreational exploration of shipwreck sites." However, the right of reasonable access does not include the unfettered right to remove shipwreck artifacts. Sport diving and the collection of artifacts for sale or as personal souvenirs are not the same activity. In addition, the State does not regulate when and how deep sport divers choose to go.

2. What is the basis of the legal authority of the State of Michigan to regulate the removal of artifacts from the bottomlands of the Great Lakes?

Part 761 and the Federal Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 provide necessary and sufficient statutory authority. Part 761 prohibits the removal, alteration and destruction of abandoned property which is in, on, under, or over the bottomlands of the Great Lakes including those within a Great Lakes underwater preserve without a permit issued by representatives of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Department of History, Arts and Libraries (HAL). Each permit may contain appropriate conditions. Engaging in activities prohibited under Part 761 are crimes. A person seeking a permit must complete and file a prescribed application form (see below).

3. How does the presence of a preserve affect the use of the water column above the bottomlands?

Preserve status does not curtail other lake use activities, including sport fishing, boating, swimming, and commercial shipping. In many preserves, wrecks are buoyed during the diving season and care must be taken to avoid colliding with them. Of course, the presence of fish nets in a preserve can present a definite hazard to fragile shipwrecks and to divers and the placement of nets near known wreck sites is discouraged.

4. Are permits required for archaeological projects or to look for sites?

Nondestructive archaeological recording and survey projects with no artifact disturbance or recovery will not require a permit. Projects involving displacement of artifacts, even temporarily, or alteration of wreckage (such as placement of signs or permanent datum points) will require a permit. As a courtesy to other divers and in the interest of safety, the permit will require all tapes, lines, etc. used in recording projects to be removed at the conclusion of the project. Permits are not required to search for wrecks. However, we are compelled to remind anyone who looks for undiscovered shipwrecks that by finding wrecks the discoverer exposes them to danger of destruction by careless sport divers and looters. The State has limited resources with which to police and protect already known sites. Shipwreck searchers ought to carefully weigh the value to the public of discovering new wrecks against the adverse consequences of that discovery. Anyone who finds a shipwreck should report it to:

Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA) Michigan Historical Center

Michigan Department of History, Arts and Libraries
Lansing, MI 48918-1847

5. What should a diver do when human remains are encountered on a shipwreck?

Section 76107(3) of Part 761 prohibits any "person" from removing, conveying, mutilating or defacing any human remains discovered on the bottomlands of the Great Lakes. Those activities are all crimes. On the other hand, law enforcement officials are authorized by law to recover drowning victims. Whenever anyone sees or learns of human remains on a shipwreck, a police chief or sheriff should be contacted about the discovery.

6. Under what circumstances will the State Archaeologist, Michigan Department of State permit salvage on shipwrecks or other submerged cultural properties as part of an ongoing research and recovery program?

The precise number of intact, unpillaged shipwrecks or other submerged cultural properties in each Great Lake is unknown. Although there no doubt remain many shipwrecks to be found, what their condition may be when discovered is also unknown. Many simply broke up in storms or in strandings leaving little intact structure to be found. HAL staff will evaluate all shipwrecks or other properties according to the National Register of Historic Places criteria. Therefore, HAL and DEQ will not permit any salvage or artifact recovery directly on a shipwreck or other submerged cultural resource until such time as the historical significance of the resource and its relationship to the surrounding area can be determined, at least on a preliminary level. Both the condition of the wreck and its potential for historic study must be evaluated prior to a decision as to the issuance of a permit. DEQ staff will also consider the effect of the proposed recovery on the biological and potential recreational attributes of the site.

Before a permit for recovery is granted, the applicant must submit detailed research plans for the site to HAL and DEQ. At a minimum, when the site is a shipwreck, such plans must include: 1) a brief history of the vessel and wreck incident, 2) a sketch map of the site, 3) a description of the artifacts proposed for recovery, 4) justification for recovery, 5) proposed methods of curation, 6) short-term and long-term repository for the recovered artifacts, and 7) an evaluation of the wreck's eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

7. What about salvage of items that clearly belong to a wreck (anchors, bells, lanterns), yet through the wrecking process or later natural occurrences have become separated from the main wreck?

The initial survey of the wreck site must be of sufficient scope to take into account the "debris field" and its major artifacts. The debris field is an integral part of the wreck site. Careful study of such debris can yield important information about the wreck event and assist in historical interpretation of the vessel. If the wreck is significant and HAL and DEQ agree to issue a permit, careful mapping and photodocumentation as well as proper conservation of the item(s) will be required as permit conditions.

8. What is the final disposition of historical artifacts recovered pursuant to a permit?

Artifacts possessing substantial historical value shall be displayed or curated in a public institution such as a museum. Each proposed institution must be willing and able to undertake both the display and curation required. The costs and other problems of curation should be determined before the artifact is recovered. Written conditions on the face of the permit may be imposed by either  HAL or DEQ. As these are publicly-owned resources and because the majority of the public does not dive, these artifacts shall be available for viewing or study in a public setting. Artifacts that are deemed not of historic significance (e.g. loose boards not associated with a wreck structure) will be released to the permit holder.

9. Will the State intervene to stabilize decaying shipwrecks?

No. Since shipwreck management in Michigan is an unfunded program in both DEQ and HAL, there are no resources with which to undertake even the most basic stabilization efforts. Because of the uncertainty of liability for injuries incurred on a "stabilized" wreck, we do not encourage preserve support groups to undertake stabilization projects.

10. What responsibilities do divers and charterboat operators have?

The members of these two groups have the greatest effect on shipwrecks. Divers on the wrecks must resist the temptation to pick up artifacts and move them around the site. Handling artifacts may not only lead to breakage, but simply moving the artifacts from where they were originally used or came to rest compromises the ability of an archaeologist or historian to accurately interpret the wreck and the wreck incident.

In addition to offering a safe diving experience, charterboat operators must insure that divers from their boats do not remove artifacts from the wrecks illegally. Charterboat operators must moor or anchor their boats in a way that does not damage the wreck or disturb the debris field. They must also share the wreck with other dive groups. Inappropriate or careless mooring can easily damage and will ultimately destroy a fragile wreck.

11. How are permit applications processed?

To obtain an underwater salvage permit application, write to:

DEQ, Water Resources Division
P. O. Box 30458
Lansing, MI 48909-7958

An administratively complete application package consists of the following items:

  1. A completed application form.
  2. A map or lake chart showing the exact location of items proposed for salvage and providing Loran-C or latitude and longitude coordinates. Check the map for possible location of these items within, near, or adjacent to an existing or proposed bottomland preserve. (Locations of sites reported in applications may be kept confidential under provisions of Michigan's Freedom of Information Act).
  3. Underwater photograph of each artifact proposed for salvage as located on the lake bottom or wreck site.
  4. A plan describing how artifacts will be properly conserved after removal. This plan should include:
    1. Description of conservation method to be used.
    2. Length of time involved.
    3. Where the conservation will be done.
    4. Specification of equipment and the capability of the facility to properly conserve the items.
  5. Written acknowledgment from a museum or other public institution accepting items that it has the means to properly interpret and display the subject artifacts.

If required information is omitted from the original application or if either state agency needs additional information, a letter will be sent to the applicant requesting the missing information. A reply from the applicant is required within 20 days. This reply must contain either the requested information or indicate a need for an extension of time to submit the information. At the discretion of the Department of State or the Department of Environmental Quality, a site assessment may also be required for resources purported to be isolated from other protected resources. This assessment may consist of a visual survey of the area surrounding the site of the proposed resource removal by state divers and the applicant. There is no charge to the applicant for this inspection.

The application will be subject to a 30-day public notice period to enable all interested persons and groups to submit comments concerning whether or not a permit should be issued. This 30-day period will start only when the application is considered administratively complete. In the event the site is a new discovery, the public notice will not contain the exact location of the proposed salvage.

On or about the 20th day of the public notice period, members of the Underwater Salvage and Preserve Committee and the staffs of DEQ and HAL will forward their comments on the application. This is to ensure that the applications are reviewed and processed in a timely manner.

It is very important to note that this permit applies only to public trust bottomlands, that is, submerged lands lying below the legally-defined ordinary high-water mark for each Great Lake. There are many situations where a wreck, or the debris field from a wreck rests on the beach above the ordinary high-water mark. Wreckage or other abandoned artifacts lying above the ordinary high-water mark belong to the owner of the land where the items are found and they may not be removed or destroyed without the permission of the landowner. This law also does NOT apply to those shipwrecks and other underwater cultural resources located in the St. Mary's, St. Clair, and Detroit Rivers that connect the Great Lakes.