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Florida Treasure Hunters Fined Volume 50 Number 6, November/December 1997
by Ricardo J. Elia

A federal judge ordered Mel Fisher's treasure-hunting company, Salvors Inc., to pay a fine of $589,311 for destroying sea grass while searching without a permit for shipwrecks in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The company was also ordered to surrender historical artifacts recovered during the treasure-hunting operations, including an anchor, silver coins, cannonballs, and silver plates. The decision concluded a case begun in 1992 (see "U.S. v. Mel Fisher," ARCHAEOLOGY, November/December 1992).

Under the 1988 National Marine Sanctuaries Act, anyone who damages or destroys resources in marine sanctuaries is liable for damages. Court documents showed that from January through March, 1992, three vessels working for Fisher's company, and directed by his son Kane, conducted exploratory treasure-hunting operations in the Florida Keys sanctuary. The ships employed prop-wash deflectors, or "mailboxes," large pipes placed over the propellers that direct the thrust of the ship's engines toward the sea bottom in order to displace sediment and expose artifacts. The three ships made more than 600 holes, averaging 20 to 30 feet across and three to five feet deep, in a mile-long area. The test pitting destroyed a total of 1.63 acres of sea grass, a fragile wildlife habitat and an important element of the marine environment. Damaged or destroyed sea-grass meadows may take 50 to 100 years to regrow.

The $589,311 fine was the amount prosecutors sought to recover the costs of damage assessment by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which manages the marine sanctuaries, and for sea-grass restoration.

Kane Fisher testified during the trial that the treasure hunters failed to employ even minimal standards of archaeological recording. He admitted that the operation was carried out without a research plan and that he had not mapped and recorded the precise locations of artifacts that were removed.

The only setback for the government was the judge's refusal to fine the treasure hunters for loss of contextual archaeological information and for artifact conservation. The prosecutors had requested an additional $74,830 to cover these costs, but the judge ruled that the loss of contextual data was negligible since the artifacts came from dispersed scatters rather than discrete shipwreck sites. He also ruled that the Sanctuary Act did not entitle the government to curation costs for the artifacts.

The most important result of the case is that the court upheld NOAA's right to protect sanctuary resources from unregulated treasure hunting. The court imposed a permanent injunction on the treasure hunters against using "mailboxes" and removing artifacts from the Florida Keys sanctuary without a permit. Caroline Zander, one of the U.S. attorneys who prosecuted the case, said, "This is a major victory. It is the end of unpermitted treasure hunting in the sanctuary."

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America