Scott Benowitz examines the potential effects of not salvaging shipwrecks, cargo containers and sunken airplanes on marine ecosystems.

The administrators at UNESCO estimate that there are approximately 3 million shipwrecks resting on the bottoms of rivers, lakes, harbors, and oceans throughout the world.  

The figure of 3 million shipwrecks that UNESCO has estimated includes shipwrecks that date as far back as the late bronze age, continuing into the present day.  Shipwrecks which predate the industrial revolution pose no threat to the world’s rivers, harbors or oceans.  Prior to the industrial revolution, ships were made mostly of wood or metal alloys which are harmless to the oceans, and they would not have contained toxic chemicals.  

Shipwrecks which have occurred since the industrial revolution probably do pose a significant threat to the various ecosystems and micro-ecosystems which exist on seabeds throughout the world.  In addition to the obvious fuel and oil, modern commercial cargo ships, passenger ferries, cruise ships, fishing vessels, military vessels and submarines contain numerous chemicals, all of which will eventually leak into the bodies of water that they sank in.  Marine ecosystems are fragile, and we need to ask ourselves how many more species of marine life are we willing to lose forever?

Older shipwrecks are historically significant, UNESCO legislation states that they are to be preserved for people to view in the future.  Scuba divers can view the wrecks which are resting in shallow water, and people can explore the wrecks which are resting in deeper waters via remotely operated vehicles, manned as well as unmanned submersibles.  UNESCO legislation protects historic wrecks, and a handful of wrecks are salvaged so that they can be displayed in history museums.

In recent years, oceanographers, climatologists, and marine biologists have been closely examining how municipal wastewater, garbage and debris which washes into rivers and harbors during floods throughout the world contribute to ocean garbage patches.  However, the impact of debris and chemicals from shipwrecks and sunken airplanes has not been scrutinized as closely.

Databases which keep track of the estimates of specific quantities of various chemicals and substances that have entered into rivers, lakes, and oceans throughout the world that have come from shipwrecks and airplane wrecks do not exist; such databases only exist in relation to oil tankers which have wrecked during the latter decades of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century.  There have been famous examples of certain oil tankers which have been in accidents, and marine biologists have closely examined the long-lasting impact of those particular wrecks.

Sunken aircraft

Beginning in the 1980’s, it became standard procedure in aviation agencies throughout the world to attempt to recover every piece of airplanes that have been involved in accidents; this is part of the process of investigating the causes of accidents and thus learning how to prevent future accidents.  Prior to the 1980’s, fewer airplanes were recovered following accidents, and so there are also still quite a few military as well as civilian airplanes resting on the bottoms of oceans throughout the world.

Is this realistic?

While safety features that are available to military ships, cargo ships, industrial vessels, fishing ships, cruise ships as well as airplanes are more advanced than ever, and these technologies are continuing to improve, the worlds’ seas are more crowded than they have ever been, and so even though safety features are continuing to improve, we will still continue to see shipwrecks occurring throughout the 21st century, and into the future.

When shipwrecks occur within a country’s territorial waters, there are clearly defined procedures in the international maritime law which state which country or countries get the salvage rights.  When wrecks occur in international waters, nobody is required to raise a wreck unless it contained highly toxic cargo.

In instances in which a shipwreck is believed to contain highly valuable items, treasure hunters search for wrecks which were believed to contain valuable cargo, and they’ll sometimes successfully salvage parts of sunken ships during their operations.  Unless a ship contained items that are either highly toxic or particularly valuable, if it sinks in deep water in international waters, it is likely to rest wherever it lands indefinitely.

The technologies that would be involved in recovering shipwrecks have existed since the 1970’s, however, the process of raising most ships would cost far more than the value of recyclable scrap materials that would be recovered.  The technologies which are involved in salvaging shipwrecks are a variation of some of the technologies which are used in laying undersea telecommunications cables, undersea mining technologies as well as the technologies that marine biologists use to extract samples of life forms that live at the deepest depths of seabeds in oceans throughout the world.

I do realize that this is highly idealistic.  Aside from some environmental charities, the only international agency which would likely subsidize the process of raising shipwrecks would be the United Nations Environmental Program, and in order for UNEP to do so, their annual budget would need to be greatly expanded.  In order for the annual budget of UNEP to be expanded, a majority of the UN member states would have to mutually agree to raise the UN membership fees.  I’m well aware that this is highly unlikely to occur anytime in the near future.

Read also: Let’s Re-Examine Laws About Ownership Of Trees On Private Properties

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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