On 24 August 2018 the Australian Parliament passed the Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018 (Underwater Heritage Act). The Act will come into effect on 1 July 2019, replacing the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 (Historic Shipwrecks Act). The new Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018 will continue the protection of Australia’s shipwrecks, and broaden protection to sunken aircraft and other types of underwater cultural heritage.

The new legislation continues much of the successful policy framework established under the Historic Shipwrecks Act and implements the recommendations from the public Review of the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 and consideration of the requirements arising from the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (the UNESCO 2001 Convention).

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The Act gives clarity to the present and ongoing jurisdictional arrangements for protecting and managing Australia’s underwater cultural heritage in line with the 2010 Australian Underwater Cultural Heritage Intergovernmental Agreement.

Tangalooma on Moreton Island

The Underwater Heritage Act:

  • recognises that human remains found within shipwrecks or sunken aircraft must be treated with respect and not as artefacts;
  • enables protection of Australia’s underwater cultural heritage in waters outside of Australia from actions by Australians;
  • broadens protection to sunken aircraft and other underwater cultural heritage sites;
  • elevates the role of the public by recognising their role in promoting awareness, understanding, appreciation and appropriate use of Australia’s underwater cultural heritage;
  • modernises and strengthens the range of compliance and investigation powers, while adopting a graduated approach to enforcement; and
  • continues the highly successful delegated framework for day-to-day management in collaboration with the Australian States and Northern Territory.

This Underwater Heritage Act, in conjunction with the associated Underwater Cultural Heritage (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Act 2018, ensures that the discovery, protection and management of underwater cultural heritage in Australia will continue seamlessly.

The Act ensures our underwater cultural inheritance is protected for future generations. It is aligned with the UNESCO 2001 Convention, facilitating Australia to be part of the global community’s response to illegal salvaging, looting and trafficking of underwater cultural heritage.

Transition period for reporting sunken aircraft sites and artefacts

The new Underwater Cultural Heritage Act broadens protection to automatically include all aircraft that were sunk in Commonwealth waters more than 75 years ago.

To help people meet the new statutory obligations the Australian Government will provide a transition period to enable persons to declare their:

  • knowledge of the location of newly protected sunken aircraft sites; and
  • possession, custody and control of any associated artefacts previously recovered from protected sunken aircraft sites.

The transition period will begin on the day the Underwater Heritage Act commences on 1 July 2019, and continue until 31 December 2019.

Any person, business or other entity with knowledge of the location of a sunken aircraft wreck in Commonwealth waters or in possession of an associated artefact will be able to report the information to Historic shipwrecks.

Possession, trade and sale of notified protected artefacts

As with the Historic Shipwrecks Act, trading and selling artefacts is permitted under the new Underwater Heritage Act, if you have met the legal obligations of the Historic Shipwrecks Act including notifying the Minister of your possession.

Transferable permits

The Underwater Heritage Act makes it easier to transfer protected artefacts – with the introduction of transferrable permits.

Current registration certificates issued under the Historic Shipwrecks Act or the repealed Western Australian Museum Act 1959-1964 will no longer be recognised and must be returned. New permits will be issued that will more clearly identify the artefacts.

Continuing on from the Historic Shipwrecks Act, which aimed to protect underwater heritage in-situ, only artefacts recovered from shipwrecks prior to their protection under the Historic Shipwrecks Act, or subsequently recovered in accordance with a permit, can be legally in the possession, custody or control of the permit holder.

To be eligible for a new transferable permit you must meet your existing obligation and notify the Department of your possession of a protected Historic Shipwreck relic.

Notifying the DepartmentShipwreck

Notifications must be received from anyone in possession of previously un-notified protected relics (artefacts).

If you are currently in possession of notified artefacts you should also provide a notification as your contact details may not be current.

If we can’t contact you, we will be unable to provide a replacement permit. This may result in the artefact being possessed illegally.

If you are in possession of a protected Historic Shipwreck relic and have not yet notified the Minister, please do so before the Underwater Heritage Act comes into effect to meet your existing statutory obligations.

Notification can be carried out online through the Australian National Shipwrecks Database. A link to the notification of possession form is also on the Department’s Historic Shipwrecks home page.

Failure to meet your statutory obligation could result in any un-notified protected historic shipwreck relic being subject to seizure.

Where to get help

There are also specialist government staff at State, Territory or Commonwealth heritage agencies who can answer questions about the transition period or other underwater heritage related matters. For assistance please email UnderwaterHeritage@environment.gov.au

Page last updated: 29/03/19