Dear sport divers from the Netherlands, (July 3, 2018)
The Netherlands has a rich maritime past. The tangible remains of this past are often under water, including in the form of numerous shipwrecks, inside and outside the Netherlands. These wrecks are a source of memory, experience and knowledge. They are often also ecological hot spots. For relatives of people who died at sea, the wreck locations also have a very personal meaning. It is the final resting place of their loved ones.
We know more and more about the heritage that is under water. As part of the increasing use of space at sea, more and more archaeological research is being carried out. The technological possibilities for diving and doing research are increasing and as a result, more and more underwater sites are becoming accessible to more and more people. As a result, more and more shipwrecks are being discovered and identified, not in the least thanks to sports divers. By you.
The greater accessibility also makes this heritage more vulnerable. Finding and visiting a wreck can lead to heritage being damaged, intentionally or unintentionally. The warships that were sunk with their passengers occupy a special position in this. These ships, often sunk in the First and the Second World War, are considered war graves. When the peace of these ships is violated, this evokes deep emotions among relatives.
In view of the great importance of the fragile underwater heritage, with this letter we bring the current frameworks that have been set for dealing with underwater heritage to your attention. We will also discuss the way in which we want to shape the care for the underwater heritage together with you, sport divers from the Netherlands.
Due to the vulnerability of our underwater heritage, it has been decided in the Heritage Act (2016) to adjust the excavation ban for underwater excavation. With this modification it is explicitly forbidden to move or remove heritage from the seabed. This prohibition applies in Dutch territorial waters and in the contiguous zone (up to 24 miles from the coast).
Underwater heritage is, however, not only in the Dutch coastal waters, but also outside. It goes without saying that this heritage also requires careful consideration, even if the Heritage Act does not apply there. To protect the underwater heritage in international waters, the Netherlands announced two years ago that it would ratify the Unesco Convention for the protection of underwater cultural heritage.
Sunken warships enjoy sovereign immunity wherever they are in the world. This means that these wrecks may not be entered without the express consent of the flag state. The same applies to taking objects. Out of respect for the relatives of people on board, it is also important to be cautious about distributing film images and photos of the wrecks, on social media, or other communication channels.
We expect from you as a sport diver that you are aware of these rules and act on them. At the same time, we also realize that many recreational divers play an important and positive role in the management and preservation of the underwater heritage. You help to increase knowledge about underwater heritage, monitor the situation of wrecks and identify threats. You also contribute by bringing the underwater heritage to the attention of a broad public. With this you play an important additional role on the small amount of professionals in maritime archaeology.
In recent years there has been a growing cooperation between sport divers and the government. We attach great importance to that. The government is in close contact with the most important umbrella organizations of volunteers for maritime archaeology: the National Working Group Archaeology Underwater (LWAOW) and the Maritime Research Foundation North Sea (STIMON). By means of a number of pilots, the past few years have been explored how the role of recreational divers in maritime heritage care can be shaped and how obstacles to cooperation can be removed. Here, further steps will be taken in the coming period. The international agreements described above naturally remain in force.
The government wants to intensify the care for the underwater heritage in the coming years. The underwater heritage is better mapped. There will be more research into wrecks that are threatened by erosion. The subject is also getting higher and higher on the agenda for provinces and municipalities. We would like to join you with all that!
the Minister of Education, Culture and Science,
Ingrid van Engelshoven
the Minister of Defence,
Drs. A.Th.B. Bijleveld-Schouten
Translated from original by Noordzee Maritiem.