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EGLE helps ensure Michigan's lost ships rest in peace

North Point Barge Shipwreck on shore in Alpena CountyIn addition to protecting Michigan’s environment and public health by managing Michigan’s air, water, land, and energy resources, the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) helps safeguard some of the state’s most revered cultural resources: the countless ships and artifacts that have found final rest in Michigan waters over hundreds of years.

Experts estimate there are more than 6,000 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes. Around 1,500 are located off Michigan’s 3,200 miles of shoreline, some even embedded in the state’s beach sands. With the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicting low Great Lakes water levels over the coming months, many of these wreck sites are expected to be within easier reach of people strolling, snorkeling and scuba diving. There’s just one key rule: Observe, don’t disturb.

It's legal to search for, dive on, and photograph Michigan’s shipwrecks, and visitors from across the U.S. are drawn to the cold, clear, fresh water of the Great Lakes and shifting beach sands that can preserve these lost ships and their cargo for many decades.

But shipwrecks and other underwater artifacts – aircraft, prehistoric sites, piers, wharves, other structures, and more – are irreplaceable cultural relics, and the State of Michigan protects them for exploration, study, and sightseeing by divers, scientists, and future generations.

Michigan’s Aboriginal Records and Antiquities law, administered jointly by EGLE and the Department of Natural Resources, authorizes preserving shipwrecks and other abandoned property on Great Lakes bottomlands; designating underwater preserves; issuing salvage permits when appropriate; and issuing fines and penalties for illegally removing, altering, or destroying artifacts.

After designating its first underwater preserve in 1980, Michigan now has 13 preserves covering approximately 7,200 square miles of Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, and Lake Huron bottomland – an area larger than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. The preserves protect wrecks along with some of the region's most sensitive underwater natural resources.

Most underwater preserves have dive charter services, along with boat ramps, marinas, and other facilities for divers with their own boats. Volunteers with the private, nonprofit Michigan Underwater Preserve Council support development and management of many of the preserves.

Wrecks are protected even outside of the established preserves. It is a felony to remove or disturb artifacts on Great Lakes bottomlands, and anyone apprehended and convicted of removing “souvenirs” will face having their boats, cars, and equipment confiscated and up to two years imprisonment and stiff fines. Anyone with information about the illegal removal of artifacts can call the Michigan Department of Natural Resources at 800-292-7800.

Caption: North Point barge shipwreck in Alpena County.