Salvaging Marine Items Under Maritime Law

The law of salvage in maritime law states that whoever recovers a ship or cargo that has been lost at sea, in peril, or sunk is entitled to financial compensation that equals the value of the recovered property. The law has been around for centuries and is in place to ensure salvagers are fairly compensated for their efforts.

What You Can Salvage

Any property that salvors gain through the process of salvage is eligible for compensation or to keep. That means full vessels, marine instruments and gauges, sunken treasure, personal belongings of value, and other items are all eligible for salvage. Vessels in distress can also be salvaged, and a salvor can seek compensation for the full value of the vessel and more.

Derelict vessels and property with no crew or visible intention of recovery are fair game for salvage, but time away from a belonging does not legally make it a salvor’s by nature. An owner can claim his or her rightful ownership at any point, unless he or she has expressly relinquished it.

Seeking Compensation for Salvaged Property

Unless salvage has taken place under contract, a pure salvor may recover the property. A pure salvor acts in good faith without legal obligation to provide assistance to those in trouble. Until a shipowner or operator abandons a ship, he or she can refuse offers of salvage.

Pure salvors can receive compensation for:

  • The current value of the vessel
  • The effort it took to address the salvage situation
  • The amount of danger involved
  • The operation’s measurement of success
  • Time, expenses, and losses that salvors incurred
  • Any real or perceived risks to salvors and their equipment
  • The use of equipment in salvage operations
  • A prompt timeline

Salvage awards are generally at the discretion of a judge or arbitrator and will be determined based on the facts and circumstances in each situation. The award can never be more than the total valuation of the recovered property.

Contract salvage involves an agreement between the salvor and the owner or operator of a distressed vessel. These types of salvage acts are generally performed for a fixed rate, regardless of the success of the operation. In some cases, contracts that have been arranged when a vessel is in distress may be disregarded or reduced if it is determined to be unfair by the courts.

Acts of salvage may include:

  • Helping to remove ships that have run aground
  • Recovering sunken vessels or cargo
  • Extinguishing fires
  • Other acts that directly help a vessel that is in distress

Under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, the only time you may not be eligible to claim a reward is if the wreck is in state governed waters. Finds in this jurisdiction are not eligible for keeping or recompense.

Maritime Lien

A salvor has the responsibility for filing a claim under maritime law to secure ownership of a piece of property or for an entire shipwreck. Without doing so, a salvor may be required to relinquish his or her claim to the rightful owner. If a salvor has filed a claim, creating a maritime lien, then a property owner must negotiate a claim reward through the legal system for the value of the property and other factors.

Until a shipowner pays salvage money, he or she may not be able to reclaim a vessel. The salvor has a maritime lien on the property as determined by statute or jurisdiction, and will not be required to return the property until he has obtained recompense for services rendered. A salvor cannot claim salvage compensation from a vessel owner who does not reclaim the property.

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