Alaska's 'Abandon Shipwreck Act' aims to protect wrecks from scuba looters

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Posted by on April 18, 2006 at 21:07:02:

Liars and looters Leigh Bishop and Brad Sheard. Following the lead of dive industry-endorsed shipwreck looters Bishop and Sheard, scuba diving thieves around the world are destroying wrecks for bragging rights, coffee table displays and internet auction profits that amount to a fraction of the revenue shipwrecks can generate as fully protected underwater museums.

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (17 April 2006) -- There are more than 4,000 sunken ships throughout the coastal regions of Alaska. Those historical sites, though shrouded under chilly waters, hold a trove of historical value to the state.

Earlier this month, University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists joined state researchers in diving to a few of the wreckage sites to evaluate their condition.

"There were some spectacular wrecks there," said Professor John Kelley. "But there's been a lot of tragedy as well."

Kelley, with the School of Fisheries and Ocean Science at UAF, helped secure a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration late last year to look at a handful of sunken vessels in Southeast Alaska. He was interested in looking at the degradation and marine biology surrounding wreckages, while state and federal agencies like Department of Natural Resources and Minerals Management Service wanted to research the condition of the sites for cultural and archeological documentation. The collaboration was a first among the several agencies for scientific and cultural research.

The mission, Kelley said, was to pick a few vessels of historical prominence for the Southeast communities around Juneau and the Lynn Canal leading up to Haines and Skagway. The team collected samples of bottom sediments to determine the state of degradation of the wrecks and assess what could be done to preserve them.

"We're interested in seeing the rates of deterioration and what needs to be done to document and preserve them," Kelley said.

Kelley said one of the major interests in marine archeology is the tie-in with the communities near the wrecks and documenting the wrecks as part of the communities history. In the Southeast, many wrecks happened during the Gold Rush era when marine travel was used to transport seekers to the Klondike and Yukon areas.

The first wreck the team visited was the Islander, near Admiralty Island. It was the only one the team didn't have to dive to because the rusted hull remains beached, making the researching more accessible.

The team also visited the Kathleen, near Lena Point, where the ship rests at the bottom of the water on its side. A high frequency sonar borrowed from the Department of Fish and Game was especially helpful on this dive, Kelly said, because it allowed the team to pinpoint the exact location of the wreck.

"We were able to anchor a safe distance away from it so we didn't end up like the Kathleen," Kelley said, only half joking. "We certainly didn't want to be swimming home that night."

The team also investigated the Clara Nevada wreck that went down near Eldred Rock. Passengers and their possessions had been safely rescued from that ship.

Those aboard the Princess Sofia were not so lucky. About 350 people perished when the ship struck Vanderbilt Reef and ripped a hole in the hull. The boat sat stranded for a day and passengers waited out a storm, hoping rescuers would reach them before they sunk, but the storm prevailed.

Kelley said history of those wreckages are just as poignant as the remains that are left.

"It was like watching a body," Kelley said. "A human body that is now just a little bit of the viscera and bones."

While Kelley's research will help determine biological and scientific data about the decay of ship wreckages over time and how they affect the marine environment, the state netted valuable historical information that could help in the restoration efforts of the wreckage sites.

Judy Bittner is the state historic preservation officer with the Department of Natural Resources Office of History and Archeology. She said this trip was the first time her office worked with the university to combine studies of wrecks. The findings are the first step in trying to preserve the wreckages and protect them through the Abandon Shipwreck Act. The research also allows the state to follow the degradation of wrecks over the years.

"The goal is to take sort of snapshot in time so we would know the condition of the wrecks now and be able to characterize them so if we went back in five or 10 years, we would be able to see how they're changing," said state archeologist Dave McMahan.

Many of the wreckage sites are also becoming popular recreations dive sites and the state wants to make sure the wreckages are protected from pilfering. McMahan placed a bronze marker on the Clara Nevada wreckage to remind divers that the site is state owned and protected under state historical regulations.

State and university team members hope it's not the last time they will work together to examine cultural and biological significance of other wreckage sites.

"Its all important," McMahan said. "Shipwrecks are communities. They're not just shipwrecks but they're communities where marine animals live and plants grow."

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