The new Belgian law concerning the protection of the underwater cultural heritage

The UNESCO-Convention implemented by the new law in force on June 1st 2014

On July the 1st of 2014, the new law concerning protection of the underwater cultural heritage entered into force. An earlier version of the law ‘concerning the finding and protection of wrecks’ was already published in 2007, but due the lack of required Royal Decrees it had not yet been implemented. The intention of the law from 2007 was to regulate both the ownership of wrecks and wreckages in the Belgian part of the North Sea as well as the protection of historic-archaeological valuable wrecks and wreckages in Belgian territorial waters. In the meantime this so called ‘wreck law’ was adapted so as to integrate the in the meantime by Belgium ratified UNESCO-Convention in consultation with the cabinet of Flemish minister Geert Bourgeois and the Flemish Heritage Agency. The new law covers not only wrecks and wreckages but also all other forms of underwater cultural heritage both within the territorial sea and on the continental shelf

The Royal Decree of this law (25th of April 2014) nominates the governor of West-Flanders as the “receiver” of the cultural heritage. The receiver does not only serve as a ‘hotline’ for the reporting of findings. He is required to record and announce these findings as well as provide advice to the minister of the North Sea concerning whether the finding can be regarded as underwater cultural heritage. When a find is recognized as cultural heritage, the state automatically becomes the owner of the heritage in order to be able to protect it accordingly. The government - subject to payment of the costs of preservation - may return the find to its original owner or donate it to a museum. If no one claims the find the state may hand it back to the finder who has to keep it in a good state of preservation.

Engagement with respect to the UNESCO Convention

Concretely, the new law protects the marine heritage that has been underwater for more than 100 years in the exclusive economic zone and in the continental shelf. Thereby, Belgium already adheres to a large extent to the UNESCO treaty concerning the protection of underwater cultural heritage. On behalf of its regions and communities, Belgium ratified this treaty on 5th August 2013.

In the territorial sea, where Belgium enjoys complete sovereignty, the new law goes one step further than internationally required. There, the heritage less than 100 years old can also be protected. This is done in order to be able to protect a selection of the numerous metal ships and submarines that lie in Belgian waters. Some of them, at least 40 date from the First World War. Currently around 300 ships have been inventoried, among which about 10 can be identified as German submarines from WW-1.

Contribution of the project

The SeArch project will elaborate and test procedures and carry out the necessary research in order to efficiently implement this new law in the interest of underwater heritage, which can offer to our country important added value.

In the future we will no longer speak of a wreck law but instead of the law concerning the protection of the underwater cultural heritage.

Inventory of wrecks

An inventory of wrecks is a necessary first step to allow for their protection. In the framework of a collaboration agreement on maritime archaeology between the federal government and the Flemish region, a first step was made in 2004 by bringing together all the current information into one database, not only regarding shipwrecks but also on other archaeological sites (such as sunken settlements) in the Belgian part of the North Sea. Since 2006 this database is accessible online in four languages (Dutch, French, German and English) on the website of the Flemish Heritage Agency.

After the inventory phase, all inventoried items must be evaluated in order to decide about the need to offer additional protection. The new law on underwater cultural heritage will allow for the most valuable heritage items to be appropriately taken care of.