Fla. salvaging fight goes to magistrate Treasure hunter is accused of harming seabed.

May 13, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

KEY WEST, Fla. -- Ever since the first Spanish sailors filled their ships with gold taken from native Americans and wrecked their vessels on the reefs, it has been possible to make a living in the Florida Keys as a treasure salvor.

The Keys' oldest profession, however, is now threatened by a dispute over who controls the coins minted for the king of Spain and deposited in Florida's reefs 150 years before the United States existed.

Today, a federal magistrate was to consider whether the salvor Mel Fisher should be allowed to resume blowing holes in the fragile seabed of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The sanctuary's managers said they will later decide whether to allow less destructive salvaging methods.

Last month, the managers banned treasure hunting in the reserve.

They had discovered a mile-long canyon of underwater holes blasted by Mr. Fisher in his search for the remains of a Spanish fleet that sank off the Upper Keys in a 1733 hurricane.

The sanctuary surrounding the Keys was created two years ago to protect the continent's only living barrier reef.

The feds said Mr. Fisher's plundering off Marathon created more than 100 craters, some more than 10 feet deep and 30 feet wide. Sea grass, sea fans, sponges and soft coral were blown away.

Mr. Fisher said the holes, created by directing the thrust of his ship's propellers onto the seabed, caused no long-term damage. He said the ban was simply another government attempt to lay claim to his findings.

"It seems crazy, but I think they created the whole sanctuary to get the treasure," he said. "Through the years, the government has tried under many guises to take over title to these foreign shipwrecks."

Mr. Fisher thought the issue was put to rest in 1982, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that admiralty law prevails in the handling of abandoned shipwrecks. That ruling, which in effect declared "finders keepers," validated Mr. Fisher's claim to the treasure of the Nuestra Seora de Atocha, a ship discovered in 1985 after 16 years of searching.

Officials who manage the sanctuary say the federal law that created such preserves in 1972 places any resources within them under federal control.

Environmentalists say treasure hunters' work destroys resources that belong to the public.

"Floridians, indeed all Americans, have a stake in keeping the Mel Fishers of the world from trashing our marine heritage," said Maureen Eldridge of the Washington-based Center for Marine Conservation.

"The marine resources of the Keys are not a private treasure . . . but a public treasure," she said.

An exasperated Mr. Fisher responded, "They just don't own it."

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