Over the weekend in Spain, the civil guard in Cadiz announced arrests of three individuals alleged to have patrolled the shallow waters off Cadiz. They used an underwater robot to salvage objects from ancient shipwrecks, yielding treasures as varied as Roman anchors, Phoenician pottery, and bullets from the Battle of Trafalgar. The Guardian report has labeled the individuals “pirates”. Though their behavior violates Spanish law, I’m not sure we can call them pirates in the conventional sense. A number of companies legally salvage wrecks in other waters. Generally, English and American admiralty law rewards salvors. When property is lost at sea, the rescuer can claim a salvage award on the property. That doesn’t appear to be the case for the defendants in Cadiz though. I would guess that the defendants were patrolling within Spain’s territorial waters. An important issue at the criminal trial will likely be how the prosecutors can prove the objects were taken within Spain’s waters. Of course, their claim seems to be helped by the fact that the individuals were hiding the objects in hidden compartments in their oxygen tanks. The criminal law probably triggers as soon as the objects were brought ashore
Without knowing too much about Spanish Admiralty law, Spain has outlawed salvage in this area, and with good reason. The port of Cadiz has been a bustling port for millennium, and has “the country’s largest shipwreck cemetery, holding an estimated €1.5bn in sunken gold, silver and pearls, according to Juan Manuel Gracia, president of the Association for the Recovery of Spanish Galleons.” No wonder then that Spain is attempting to restrict salvage in the area. As technology is increasingly opening the depths to exploitation, these disputes are likely to increase. Spain and England are currently disputing the wreck of the Sussex, a British warship which sank with $4 billion worth of gold in 1694.
It seems that the underwater treasure hunters had ties to others as well, because there are a number of reports today that 52 individuals have been arrested throughout Andalusia. The arrests seem to be linked to the three in Cadiz. The Guardian reports that “A team of 200 officers searched 68 flats to confiscate the pieces, many of which were bound for foreign collectors. The ring sent coins and small items through the mail. Police found larger pieces destined for Faro, Portugal, where they were to be flown to Belgium.” Reuters has a wire report as well. The reports boast that over 300,000 objects were recovered. That’s a staggering sum, and one wonders how many of the recoveries were of high quality. However, this image of recovered mosaics indicates that the authorities didn’t just recover anchors and bullets.