The Australian Government is committed to protecting Australia’s underwater cultural heritage. There are about 8,000 historic shipwrecks, sunken aircraft and other underwater cultural heritage sites in Australian waters, representing some of the unique and irreplaceable physical evidence of our past.
On 24 August 2018 the Australian Parliament passed the Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018 (UCH Act). The UCH Act came into effect on 1 July 2019, replacing the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 (Historic Shipwrecks Act).
The UCH Act continues the protection of Australia’s shipwrecks, and has broadened protection to sunken aircraft and other types of underwater cultural heritage including Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Underwater Cultural Heritage in Commonwealth waters.
The UCH Act also 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).
The UCH 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.
The UCH 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.
The UCH Act, in conjunction with the associated Underwater Cultural Heritage (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Act 2018, ensured that the discovery, protection and management of underwater cultural heritage in Australia continued seamlessly.
The UCH Act ensures our underwater cultural inheritance is protected for future generations. It is aligned with the UNESCO 2001 Convention.
Possession, trade and sale of notified protected artefacts
As with the Historic Shipwrecks Act, trading and selling artefacts is permitted under the UCH Act, as long as you have met the legal obligations of the Historic Shipwrecks Act including notifying the Minister of your possession.
The UCH Act has introduced transferrable permits, making it easier to transfer protected artefacts (previously known as historic shipwreck relics).
Current registration certificates issued under the Historic Shipwrecks Act or the repealed Western Australian Museum Act 1959-1964 are no longer recognised and must be returned. New permits are being issued that 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 artefact.
Notifying the Department
Notifications must be received from anyone in possession of previously un-notified protected 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 UCH artefact and have not yet notified the Minister, please do so as soon as possible to meet your statutory obligations.
Notification can be carried out online through the Australasian Underwater Cultural Heritage Database. A link to the notification of possession form is also on the Department’s Underwater Cultural Heritage home page.
Failure to meet your statutory obligation could result in any un-notified protected artefact 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@awe.gov.au