R.M.S Titanic - Frequently Asked Questions
Titanic holds exceptional national and international significance as both a site of historical importance and continuing scientific study. Importantly, pursuant to theAgreement Concerning the Shipwrecked Vessel RMS Titanic, the Titanic serves as a maritime memorial for those individuals who lost their lives on that infamous night in 1912. Of more than 2,200 individuals on board Titanic, approximately 1,500 perished in its tragic sinking, including 119 of the 306 American passengers, and many on their way to become United States citizens. The remains of many of these individuals were never recovered, and Titanic serves as their final resting place. All three branches of the U.S. government have been involved in efforts to protect and preserve the Titanic wreck and wreck site.
The sinking of Titanic was one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history and quickly became a catalyst for change. Following the sinking of Titanic, the United States Congress held hearings that resulted in a Senate report and measures to improve safety of navigation. Similar investigations were held in the United Kingdom. The international community readily came together for the purpose of establishing global maritime standards and regulations to promote safety of navigation, including the Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea offsite link (SOLAS), widely regarded as the most important of all international agreements on maritime safety. Today, SOLAS, as amended, is still in force, helping to ensure the safety of seafarers and modern cruise line passengers.
In response to the discovery of the Titanic wreck in 1985, Congress saw the need for legislation that would properly protect the ship, while allowing all interested parties, from relatives of victims to scientists and naval architects, to benefit from its historic discovery. As stated in House Report 99-393 (November 21, 1985), Congress was particularly concerned with the potential harm to the wreck site that salvors might cause by physically altering, disturbing, or salvaging Titanic.
Nearly identical bills addressing these concerns were introduced in the House of Representatives on September 11, 1985 (H.R. 3272), and in the Senate on February 5, 1986 (S. 2048). Both chambers ultimately passed the Senate version of the bill, and the R.M.S. Titanic Maritime Memorial Act of 1986 (Titanic Memorial Act) was signed into law by President Reagan on October 21, 1986. President Reagan’s signing statement provided that:
“The R.M.S. Titanic is the premier symbol in modern times of both the perils of the sea and the need for high standards of ship safety. The significance of the R.M.S. Titanic stems not only from the durable imprint of the disaster upon the consciousness of succeeding generations but also from the enormous strides made by the international community in promoting safety of life at sea, the study and observation of ice conditions, the maintenance of ice patrols in the North Atlantic Ocean, and the development and improvement of standards for the design and construction of vessels.”
See Ronald Reagan, Statement on Signing the R.M.S. Titanic Maritime Memorial Act of 1986 offsite link (Oct. 21, 1986).
The Titanic Memorial Act directed the State Department and NOAA, respectively, to (1) negotiate an international agreement to protect Titanic; and (2) develop international guidelines for exploration, research, and, if determined appropriate, salvage. As directed by Congress in the Titanic Memorial Act, the State Department subsequently entered into negotiations with the United Kingdom, France, and Canada to develop an international agreement to protect Titanic, and on June 18, 2004, the United States signed the Agreement Concerning the Shipwrecked Vessel RMS Titanic(International Agreement), subject to the adoption of domestic implementing legislation.
In 2017, Congress enacted legislation to implement the International Agreement. See Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017 (Public Law 115-31) (May 5, 2017). Section 113 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017 prohibits “any research, exploration, salvage, or other activity that would physically alter or disturb the wreck or wreck site of the RMS Titanic unless authorized by the Secretary of Commerce per the provisions of the Agreement Concerning the Shipwrecked Vessel RMS Titanic . . .”
Executive Branch Action
Since the discovery of the Titanic wreck site in 1985, executive branch agencies have been involved in protecting and preserving the site, from participating in exploration and scientific expeditions to negotiating the International Agreement. Following the enactment of Section 113, the United States deposited its instrument of acceptance for the International Agreement, which entered into force between the United States and the United Kingdom on November 18, 2019.
Consistent with the Titanic Memorial Act, NOAA developed Guidelines for Research, Exploration and Salvage of RMS Titanic (NOAA Guidelines) in 2001, in consultation with the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and other interested countries. 66 Fed. Reg. 18905 (April 12, 2001). These legally non-binding guidelines set standards for research, exploration and salvage activities at the wreck site and are consistent with the Rules Concerning Activities Aimed at the RMS Titanic and/or its Artifacts, which are annexed to the International Agreement (Annex Rules).
The Secretary of Commerce has delegated most Secretarial authority under Section 113 to NOAA. 84 Fed. Reg. 38012(Aug. 5, 2019). Therefore, any person subject to U.S. jurisdiction proposing to conduct research, exploration, salvage, or other activity that would physically alter or disturb the wreck or wreck site of Titanic must obtain a project authorization from NOAA in advance of such activities. NOAA evaluates requests for Section 113 authorization to determine if the proposed project will comply with Section 113, and, in doing so, NOAA reviews the International Agreement, including the Agreement’s Annex Rules, and the NOAA Guidelines. Additional information regarding NOAA’s implementation of Section 113 is available in the Titanic Authorizations FAQ.
NOAA also participates on behalf of the United States, and to preserve and protect the public interest in the Titanic, in proceedings before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, which oversees activities of the current salvor-in-possession of Titanic, R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. The Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 531 F. Supp. 2d 691, offsite link693 (E.D. Va. 2007).
In 1987, Titanic Ventures, Inc., a United States company, with assistance from the French Institut français de recherche pour l'exploitation de la mer offsite link (the French National Institute for Ocean Science, known by its French acronym IFREMER) (co-discoverer of the wreck), salvaged approximately 1,800 artifacts and obtained title to them, subject to certain conditions, in a salvage award from a French Administrative Tribunal. The conditions included a requirement that the artifacts not be sold individually but rather be kept together as a single collection for the public benefit. In June 1994, Titanic Ventures obtained exclusive salvage rights to Titanic from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The Court has since held that Titanic Ventures, now known as R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. (RMST), continues to have the right to salvage the wreck but does not own it or any artifacts recovered from the wreck site unless and until the Court specifically grants title to the recovered artifacts. The Court also has prohibited “cut[ting] into the wreck or detach[ing] any part of the wreck” without the Court’s authorization. See R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. The Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 742 F.Supp.2d 784 (E.D. Va. 2010).
On August 15, 2011, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia issued an Order granting RMST title to the artifacts recovered in its 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2004 salvage expeditions, subject to Covenants and Conditions. The Covenants and Conditions were initially proposed by RMST, negotiated with NOAA and the Department of State through the Department of Justice, and then finalized by the District Court. The Covenants and Conditions were developed to ensure that the artifacts recovered from Titanic would be conserved and curated as an intact collection in a manner consistent with current international and U.S. historic preservation standards and not be sold individually. The Covenants and Conditions are perpetual and carry over to any subsequent owner and trustee of the collection of artifacts. See Covenants & Conditions I., F. Under the Covenants and Conditions, NOAA represents the public interest in Titanic and has authority to enforce the terms through the U.S. Department of Justice in court proceedings. See Covenants & Conditions II., K.
How is the United States connected to Titanic?
Titanic was a British-registered ship, owned and operated by the British company White Star Line. The White Star Line was a subsidiary of the American-owned International Mercantile Marine Co. of New Jersey, of which U.S. industrial tycoon J.P. Morgan was the majority shareholder.
Of the 306 American passengers aboard Titanic, 119 did not survive. Other passengers were foreign-born immigrants traveling to the United States, hoping to become American citizens. Many of these individuals did not survive. Of those passengers rescued from the sea, most mourned the loss of family and friends in the disaster. In 2006, at age 99, Lillian Asplund offsite link, the last living American survivor of Titanic (and the last living survivor with clear recollection of the event), died in Massachusetts. At age five, she lost her father and three brothers on Titanic.
In 1985, the shipwreck was discovered in international waters by a joint French-American team of scientists, led by American oceanographer Robert Ballard. Additional information regarding the extensive involvement of the U.S. Government in efforts to protect and preserve the Titanic wreck and wreck site following its discovery is available in Question 1.
Agreement Concerning the Shipwrecked Vessel R.M.S. Titanic and Section 113 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017
Following the enactment of the Titanic Memorial Act in 1986, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and France negotiated an international agreement to protect Titanic and its wreck site. The Agreement Concerning the Shipwrecked Vessel R.M.S. Titanic (International Agreement) among other things: recognizes Titanic as a memorial to those who died and as an underwater historical wreck of international importance (Article 2); requires that Parties to the Agreement take “all reasonable measures” to ensure that Titanic artifacts are conserved and curated consistent with the Annex Rules to the Agreement and are kept intact as project collections (Article 3); requires that each Party institute a system of project authorizations to regulate its nationals and vessels flying its flag (Article 4(1)); establishes the preferred management technique as in situ preservation (Article 4(2)); preserves non-intrusive public access (Article 4(3)); and requires that Parties provide copies of any request for project authorizations to other Parties to the Agreement (Article 5(2)).
- Is the International Agreement on Titanic a treaty or an executive agreement? What is the difference between the two?
There are two procedures under domestic law through which the United States becomes a party to an international agreement: (1) "Treaties" are international agreements (regardless of their title, designation, or form) whose entry into force with respect to the United States takes place only after two-thirds of the United States Senate has given its advice and consent under Article II, section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution; (2) "International agreements other than treaties" (often referred to as "executive agreements") are international agreements brought into force with respect to the United States on a constitutional basis other than with the advice and consent of the Senate. Treaties and executive agreements are binding international obligations of the U.S. government, regardless of their domestic designation, and have the effect of law in the United States.
There are two types of executive agreements: (1) Sole executive agreements, and (2) congressional-executive agreements. A sole executive agreement is negotiated by the President and put into legal effect on the basis of the President’s inherent authority as chief executive of the nation and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Sole executive agreements are generally reserved for specific agreements with another country on a matter that does not affect the broad interests of the nation. A congressional-executive agreement is based on authority granted by Congress to the President by statute or in a joint resolution of both Houses of Congress.
The International Agreement is a congressional-executive agreement, negotiated under the authority granted by Congress in the Titanic Memorial Act. 16 U.S.C. § 450rr–4. Additional implementing legislation was necessary to provide the U.S. authority to carry out the obligations it would assume by becoming a party to the International Agreement. That additional authority is contained in Section 113 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017, discussed in more detail below.
- Has the International Agreement entered into force?
Yes. The United States deposited its instrument of acceptance and the International Agreement entered into force Set native linkbetween the United States and the United Kingdom on November 18, 2019.
Both France and Canada participated in negotiating the International Agreement, but neither State has yet become a party to the International Agreement. Representatives of the United States (Department of State and NOAA) have informed Japan, Russia, and other nations of the International Agreement and of the United States’ interest in having them join the International Agreement. To date, however, this has not resulted in negotiations. The Department of State and NOAA continue to hope to increase the number of nations that are party to the International Agreement, particularly those that possess deep water submersible technology.
- What legislation implements the International Agreement for the United States?
On June 18, 2004, the United States signed the International Agreement, subject to acceptance through the enactment of domestic implementing legislation. On May 5, 2017, President Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017 into law. Section 113 of that Act implements the International Agreement for the United States, as follows:
“[F]or fiscal year 2017 and each fiscal year thereafter, no person shall conduct any research, exploration, salvage, or other activity that would physically alter or disturb the wreck or wreck site of the RMS Titanic unless authorized by the Secretary of Commerce per the provisions of the Agreement Concerning the Shipwrecked Vessel RMS Titanic. The Secretary of Commerce shall take appropriate actions to carry out this section consistent with the Agreement.”
Section 113 provides the United States implementing authority for the International Agreement. The United Kingdom ratified the International Agreement on November 6, 2003, implementing it through Order 2003 No. 2496. See also Order 2021 No. 470 (minor amendment to 2003 Order).
- Who does Section 113 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017 (Section 113) apply to?
Section 113 requires that any “person” subject to U.S. jurisdiction proposing to conduct any research, exploration, salvage, or other activity that would physically alter or disturb the wreck or wreck site of the Titanic first obtain authorization from the NOAA Administrator. Section 113 does not define the term “person”; however, the Dictionary Act, 1 U.S.C. § 1, provides that in determining the meaning of any act of Congress, unless the context indicates otherwise, “person” includes “corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals.” NOAA employs this definition of person in interpreting and applying Section 113 consistent with international law.
Section 113 does not further address jurisdictional issues that may arise during the search for and recovery of artifacts from Titanic. However, by requiring the United States to implement the International Agreement, Section 113 adopts a jurisdictional approach that is consistent with international law as reflected in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The International Agreement requires that each Party take certain actions with regard to “its nationals and vessels flying its flag.” International Agreement, Art. 4. Under international law as reflected in UNCLOS, coastal States do not have jurisdiction to regulate activities directed at shipwrecks and other underwater cultural heritage by foreign nationals on foreign-flagged vessels operating beyond the coastal State’s 24 nautical mile contiguous zone. See UNCLOS Art. 303(2). As the wreck site of Titanic is located beyond any nation’s contiguous zone, Section 113 authorizes the United States to assert jurisdiction only over the activities of U.S. nationals and U.S.-flagged vessels engaged in activities directed at Titanic.
- Does Section 113 prohibit artifact removal except as authorized by NOAA?
Yes, Section 113 prohibits persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction from engaging in any research, exploration, salvage, or other activity that would physically alter or disturb the wreck or wreck site of Titanic, unless authorized by the Secretary of Commerce, as delegated to NOAA (see Question 1). See 84 Fed. Reg. 38012 (Aug. 5, 2019).
The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia has constructive in rem jurisdiction over Titanic and has granted exclusive salvage rights to RMST under the maritime law of salvage. Therefore, any person subject to U.S. jurisdiction proposing a project involving the salvage of Titanic or the wreck site, as determined by the court, must also obtain approval by the court in addition to any authorization required by Section 113. NOAA intends to notify the district court of any project that may require Section 113 authorization and will encourage any person requesting authorization to coordinate directly with the court and RMST or any current salvor-in-possession of Titanic. NOAA also intends to provide the Court with a copy of any authorization NOAA issues pursuant to Section 113.
Status and History of R.M.S. Titanic
- Why has R.M.S. Titanic become perhaps the most iconic shipwreck in the world, despite numerous other tragic disasters throughout maritime history?
When the reportedly unsinkable Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, approximately 1,500 of the 2,200 individuals aboard the ship perished. Almost immediately, legends developed from reports of the night’s events. The press celebrated the luxurious ship’s heroes and heroines and remembered those whose lives were lost. Major news headlines in 1912 focused on notable men and women offsite link aboard the ship and the stories of survivors offsite link, as well as the ship’s safety standards offsite link (primarily the lack of lifeboats) and the investigatory response to these regulations. Today, the tales surrounding one of the greatest peacetime maritime disasters in history continue to fascinate millions and inspire countless books, articles, films and documentaries.
Social Class Barriers
Titanic tells a unique story of what happens when members of distinct social classes are placed in the same life-threatening circumstance. Passengers onboard Titanic were separated into classes based on a rigid social hierarchy. However, when the ship struck the iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912, all passengers, rich and poor alike, confronted the same situation. Generation upon generation are familiar with the stories of wealthy passengers who were lowered from the ship in lifeboats only half filled to capacity while third-class passengers and their children struggled to find life-saving equipment. Modern-day films and documentaries have recounted the last moments of the musicians who continued playing on deck until they were finally pulled underwater with the ship; of the man who dressed in women’s clothing so that he would be allowed in a lifeboat; or the strength of the women who persuaded their lifeboat captains to return to the wreck in search of survivors.
The significant loss of life was further personalized through reports of the deaths of many famous and wealthy individuals. Many men of great fortune perished in the sinking after having escorted their wives and female companions to the remaining lifeboats. There were many stories of men dressed in their finest business attire sitting on the deck of the ship as they awaited their final fate. Immensely well-known individuals died on Titanic, including American multimillionaire and banker John Jacob Astor IV, author Jacques Futrelle, Major Archibald Butts who was an aide to President Taft, and Macy’s co-owner and former U.S. Congressman Isidor Straus and his wife Ida, who refused to leave his side when offered a seat in a lifeboat.
Timing: 20th Century Engineering, Technology and Communications
News of the tragedy was received by many as an unfathomable surprise. At the time of its construction, Titanic represented the height of shipbuilding technology, comfort, and luxury. To many, the ship was seen as unsinkable and immune from the dangers of early twentieth century transoceanic passage. The fantastic loss of life and the sheer magnitude of the accident shocked the world. The failure of the ship’s owners to provide sufficient safety equipment stunned and outraged the international community.
A significant reason why Titanic is today the icon of maritime tragedy is a result of the time period in which the accident occurred. By the early twentieth century, breakthrough technological advances in communication capabilities had brought the world closer together. People were able to communicate with one another more easily and information and news was more quickly disseminated across the United States and internationally. Thus, news of the Titanic disaster spread rapidly throughout North America, Europe, and the world. Further, at the time of the disaster, the United States was in the midst of a massive wave of immigration; emigrants from numerous European countries were flooding into the United States. Unlike previous time periods, however, twentieth century immigrants were able to utilize the technology of the day to retain their ties with family and friends left behind in Europe. Some of the passengers aboard Titanic were individuals intending to become United States citizens upon arrival in New York. Thus, Titanic is not only remembered as a tragedy but as part of the story of America’s growth as an immigrant nation and cultural melting pot. In this way, the story of Titanic is the story of America.
- Is R.M.S. Titanic’s deterioration the result of submarine visits and human activities, bacteriological degradation, metallurgical decay and/or the effects of electrolysis in salt water, the expected aging of more than 100-year-old steel, or other natural causes?
When examining shipwrecks, NOAA considers all aspects of deterioration, including biological, chemical, and physical processes. In the case of Titanic, NOAA has maintained that all three processes have impacted the site. Examples of each include, but are not limited to: biological deterioration through rusticle growth, chemical deterioration through electrolysis, and physical deterioration through underwater vehicles coming into contact with the wreck site and causing increased turbidity. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has conducted metallurgical analyses of steel and rivet samples recovered from Titanic and concluded that the construction of the ship likely contributed to the damage during its encounter with the iceberg.
R.M.S. Titanic Maritime Memorial Act (Titanic Memorial Act)
What are the purposes of the Titanic Memorial Act?
The purposes of the Titanic Memorial Act are to: (1) encourage international efforts to designate R.M.S. Titanic as an international maritime memorial to those who lost their lives aboard the ship in 1912; (2) direct the United States to enter into negotiations with other interested nations to establish an international agreement that provides for designation of Titanic as an international maritime memorial, and protects the scientific, cultural, and historical significance of Titanic; (3) encourage, in those negotiations or in other fora, the development and implementation of international guidelines for conducting research on, exploration of, and if appropriate, salvage of Titanic; and (4) express the sense of the United States Congress that, pending such international agreement or guidelines, no person should physically alter, disturb, or salvage Titanic. 16 U.S.C. § 450-rr(b).
Who were the champions of the Titanic Memorial Act?
Rep. Walter Jones, Sr. (D-NC), who was a major proponent for the designation of the wreck site of U.S.S. Monitor as the first National Marine Sanctuary, was also instrumental in the passage of the Titanic Memorial Act. Rep. Jones championed the House bill through nearly every step of the legislative process: he introduced the House bill, he chaired the hearing in the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee’s Subcommittee on Oceanography, he shepherded the bill through the full Committee, and saw to its passage in the House of Representatives. Ultimately, Rep. Jones, with help from Rep. Norman Shumway (R-CA), successfully advocated before the House for the passage of the nearly identical Senate version of the bill. In the Senate, Sen. Lowell Weicker, Jr. (R-CT) introduced and successfully argued for its passage. See S. 2048(99th Cong.); see also H.R. 3272 (99th Cong.).
Which members of Congress supported the 1986 Titanic legislation?
The Titanic Memorial Act received bipartisan support, passing by voice vote in both the House and the Senate. See S. 2048 (99th Cong.); see also H.R. 3272 (99th Cong.).
Cosponsors of the bill in the House of Representatives included: Rep. Norman Lent (R-NY), ranking minority member of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries; Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY); Rep. Thomas Carper (D-DE); Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-NY); Rep. Gerry Studds (D-MA); Rep. Mike Lowry (D-WA); Rep. William Hughes (D-NJ); Rep. Barbara Mikulsky (D-MD); Rep. Edward Boland (D-MA); Rep. Charles Price (D-IL); Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D-CA); Rep. Dennis Hertell (D-MI); Rep. Robert Matsui (D-CA); Rep. Helen Bentley (R-MD); Rep. Thomas Manton (D-NY); Rep. Berkley Bedell (D-IA); Rep. Ted Weiss (D-NY); Rep. Robert Borski (D-PA); Rep. Robert Dornan (R-CA); and Rep. Charles Whitley, Sr. (D-NC). Sen. Clairborne Pell (D-RI) cosponsored the bill in the Senate, and the bill was passed by a voice vote in which Sen. Lowell Weicker Jr. (R-CT) was the sole speaker.
What is the statutory definition of the R.M.S. Titanic under the Titanic Memorial Act?
The Titanic Memorial Act defines "R.M.S. Titanic" to mean “the shipwrecked vessel R.M.S. Titanic, her cargo or other contents, including those items which are scattered on the ocean floor in her vicinity.” 16 U.S.C. 450 rr-1(c). The NOAA Guidelines, which are based primarily on the Rules annexed to the International Agreement, define "R.M.S. Titanic" and "artifacts" separately to better conform to the International Agreement. The combination of these two definitions is similar to that found in the Titanic Memorial Act.
What happened following the enactment of the Titanic Memorial Act, and what efforts were there to pass implementing legislation in the United States prior to 2017?
Negotiations of an international agreement did not begin immediately following the enactment of the Titanic Memorial Act in 1986. The 1995 Greenwich Conference sponsored by the British National Museum was the first forum where countries other than the United States expressed an interest in negotiating an agreement to protect Titanic. It took four years to negotiate the International Agreement. After the negotiations, RMST sued the Department of State and NOAA, alleging that finalizing and implementing the draft International Agreement would interfere with RMST’s exclusive salvage rights. R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 2000 WL 1946826, at *1 (E.D. Va. Sept. 15, 2000). After the suit was dismissed, NOAA published Guidelines for Research, Exploration, and Salvage of RMS Titanic in the Federal Register in 2001. 66 Fed. Reg. 18905 (April 12, 2001).
The United States subsequently signed the International Agreement in 2004, subject to implementing legislation enacted by Congress and signed by the President. The Department of State first proposed legislation to implement the International Agreement to the 109th Congress (2005-2007). The Department of State submitted similar legislation to the 110th and 112th Congresses after additional process and deliberations to address comments and concerns of RMST, as well as clarifications to address concerns within the Administration.
In March 2012, Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) introduced legislation, co-sponsored by Senator John Isakson (R-Georgia), to amend the Titanic Memorial Act to protect the wreck site of Titanic from salvage and intrusive research. According to Sen. Kerry, the R.M.S. Titanic Maritime Memorial Preservation Act of 2012 (Senate Bill 2279) proposed to: (1) amend the Titanic Memorial Act by providing the Department of Commerce with the authority to protect the Titanic wreck site from salvage and intrusive research; (2) provide authority to monitor and enforce specific scientific rules to protect the public’s interest in the wreck site and collection; and (3) propose the establishment of a Titanic Advisory Council, modeled on advisory councils previously established under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. The bill was referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on March 29, 2012. Also in March 2012, representatives from NOAA, the Department of State, and the United States Coast Guard met with staff from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure to provide answers to questions and technical drafting assistance on a draft bill to implement the International Agreement. On July 31, 2012, the bill was favorably reported by the Commerce Committee, but it never received a vote by the full Senate. The Congressional Budget Office scored the bill and on November 2, 2012, reported that S.2279 would have had no significant impact on the federal budget.
A more detailed background and history of the negotiation of the International Agreement and NOAA Guidelines is available in the preamble of the Federal Register notice for the proposed Guidelines. 65 Fed. Reg. 35326 (June 2, 2000). As further described in Question 1 offsite link, legislation implementing the International Agreement was ultimately signed into law in 2017, and the U.S. deposited its instrument of acceptance in 2019.
NOAA’s Protection of R.M.S. Titanic Pursuant to the International Agreement, International Agreement Annex Rules, and NOAA Guidelines
What are the overall principles of the International Agreement and it’s Annex Rules?
The International Agreement, along with its annex, “Rules Concerning Activities Aimed at the RMS Titanic and/or Its Artifacts” (Annex Rules), provide that the preferred policy for the preservation of R.M.S. Titanic and its artifacts is in situ preservation. International Agreement, Art. 4 (2); Annex Rules at I(1). Recovery or excavation aimed at Titanic and/or its artifacts should be granted only when justified by educational, scientific, or cultural interests. International Agreement, Art. 4 (2). The Annex Rules provide that all artifacts recovered from Titanic should be conserved and curated consistent with professional standards in a manner that provides for public access, curation and its availability for educational, scientific, cultural and other public purposes. Annex Rules at XII (28). Additionally:
- Activities shall avoid disturbance of human remains.
- Activities utilizing non-destructive techniques and non-intrusive surveys and sampling shall be preferred to those involving recovery or excavation aimed at Titanic and/or its artifacts.
- Activities shall have the minimum adverse impact on Titanic and its artifacts.
- Persons undertaking these activities shall ensure proper recording and dissemination to the public of historical, cultural and archaeological information.
Annex Rules at I. The Annex Rules reflect the most widely accepted principles in archaeology that are appropriate and applicable to a memorial site. The Annex Rules were influenced by input received from delegations from the United Kingdom, Canada, and France. RMST, as well as various experts in law, science, history, archaeology, and salvage were also consulted.
- What are the NOAA Guidelines and How Do They Relate to the International Agreement?
Section 5(a) of the Titanic Memorial Act directed the NOAA to enter into consultations with the United Kingdom, France, Canada and others to develop international guidelines for research on, exploration of, and if appropriate, salvage of Titanic. Following the finalization of the draft International Agreement, NOAA published its proposed Guidelines for Research, Exploration, and Salvage of the RMS Titanic (Guidelines) in the Federal Register. 65 Fed. Reg. 35326 (June 2, 2000). The final Guidelines, including responses to public comments, were published by final rule April 12, 2001, 66 Fed. Reg. 18905-18913 (April 12, 2001), consistent with the authority provided in the Titanic Memorial Act. The NOAA Guidelines are consistent with the International Agreement Annex Rules.
Prior to the enactment of Section 113 in 2017, the NOAA Guidelines represented the primary means by which NOAA influenced activities directed at the Titanic wreck site. Following the enactment of Section 113 in 2017, NOAA has been required to ensure that any activity “that would physically alter or disturb the wreck or wreck site of the RMS Titanic” conducted by persons under U.S. jurisdiction is consistent with the International Agreement, including the Annex Rules.
The NOAA Guidelines remain applicable to artifacts governed by the Covenants and Conditions, under the 2011 Order of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The covenants and conditions specifically require that the collection of artifacts be “managed according to the professional standards recognized in the NOAA Guidelines, the International Agreement and the Annexed Rules, and the federal regulations governing the curation of the federally owned and administered archaeological collections.” R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 742 F. Supp. 2d 784, 792 (E.D. Va. 2010) (quoting R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. The Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, No. 2:93cv902, at 6 n.12 (E.D. Va. Apr. 15, 2008)).
What is the position of the International Agreement, Annex Rules, and NOAA Guidelines on the sale or trade of R.M.S. Titanic artifacts?
Article 3 of the International Agreement provides that Parties shall take all “reasonable measures” to ensure all artifacts recovered from Titanic are kept together and intact as project collections. The Annex Rules prohibit projects that would require the sale of artifacts or other material for funding. Annex Rules III(9), XII(28). In this way, the International Agreement is consistent with basic professional archaeological standards that dictate that artifacts recovered or salvaged from a wreck site should be kept intact as a collection. Such collections should not be dispersed through the sale of individual artifacts to private collectors such as through auction house sales.
However, Article 3 of the International Agreement would not necessarily preclude the sale, transfer, or trade of an entire collection, provided that the collection would be maintained in a manner that provides for public access, curation and its availability for educational, scientific, cultural and other public purposes. As long as the collection is kept together and maintained for research, education, viewing, and other use of public interest, there should not be restrictions on commercial transactions which are intended to further these public purposes. The NOAA Guidelines take a position consistent with the International Agreement, as well as the admiralty court orders in the in rem action against Titanic (seeQuestion 1 offsite link for more information).
Should the R.M.S. Titanic be considered a grave site for those who died on the ship?
NOAA acknowledges the intense controversy and disagreement over whether Titanic should be considered a grave site. Most who feel that it is not a grave site base this view on the fact that no bodies have been found on or near the wreck and that human bone dissolves into seawater at the depth at which the wreck lies.
More than 1,500 men, women and children lost their lives when Titanic sank, and a large number of those lost were likely trapped inside the ship’s hull. This tragic loss of life and the encasement of the remains of many passengers and crew in the hull sections have caused many people around the world, including descendants of Titanic’s passengers and crew, to view the shipwreck as a grave site. Organic material associated with Titanic that has been exposed to the marine environment most likely deteriorated by the 1940s, with the exception of treated organic material, such as tanned leathers used in boots or suitcases. However, experts believe that it is likely that human remains are present within the wreck, and possibly at the wreck site as well. In particular, interior spaces of the hull, especially the intact bow section, even if flooded during the sinking process, may not be exposed to the outside environment. These types of isolated environments create a condition of stasis where constant pressure, low temperatures, no flow, and anoxic water levels have been known to preserve organic matter for centuries. However, whether or not human remains are present on the shipwreck does not detract from the fact that Titanic was the last resting place for hundreds of individuals.
As demonstrated by the Titanic Memorial Act and Section 113, Congress supports recognizing Titanic as a memorial to the victims. 16 U.S.C. § 450rr-4. NOAA has also determined that it is appropriate to treat Titanic as a grave site and maritime memorial to the victims, consistent with Article 2 of the International Agreement, which establishes Titanic as a maritime memorial. In the treatment of Titanic as a maritime memorial, NOAA has determined that it is appropriate to treat Titanic as a grave site. The scientific and archaeological approach advocated by the International Agreement and NOAA Guidelines is applicable to a maritime memorial as it is consistent with the Congressional intent to recognize the scientific, cultural, and historical significance of the site.
How does NOAA balance recovering R.M.S. Titanic artifacts with managing the wreck site as a maritime memorial?
NOAA acknowledges that it may be in the public’s interest to salvage some artifacts from the Titanic wreck site. NOAA therefore balances this value with the Congressional intent to manage the wreck site as a maritime memorial consistent with the International Agreement, which proclaims that the Titanic shall be recognized as a memorial to those who perished. NOAA has concluded that the recovery of many of the artifacts from the debris field (with certain exceptions) is consistent with the NOAA Guidelines and the International Agreement, including the in situ preservation policy. However, NOAA has also determined that recovery of artifacts from within either of the two hull sections is not consistent with the purposes of a maritime memorial.
What is in situ preservation and why does NOAA prefer in situ preservation over artifact recovery and conservation?
In situ preservation means that the preservation of Titanic at the site of the wreck should be considered as the first option for protection. The International Agreement and NOAA Guidelines provide that in situ preservation is the preferred policy approach for memorializing and conserving Titanic. This approach is consistent with widely accepted international and domestic professional archaeological standards and embodies the broader public interest in conserving Titanic. It is a precautionary approach to management of Titanic consistent with the character of a maritime memorial. Under this policy, non-intrusive research and exploration of Titanic is encouraged in order to protect the wreck site for future research and access. However, it is not intended as a legal presumption against the recovery or salvage of artifacts conducted in a manner consistent with Section 113, the International Agreement and its Annex Rules, and the NOAA Guidelines. Non-intrusive research, exploration, and salvage of the artifacts may be justified by educational, scientific or cultural interests.
NOAA believes that in situ preservation of Titanic protects the diverse public interest in the shipwrecked vessel and wreck site. Congress and many others view the site as a maritime memorial, a grave site, and an underwater museum and laboratory. The hull and cargo can be seen as a time capsule of a tragic event and a snapshot of another historical period. Because intrusive activities may damage or destroy Titanic, the in situ preservation policy is compatible with promoting non-destructive uses of the site, such as non-intrusive research, education, public viewing, and even commercial use. It is also consistent with the treatment of Titanic as the final resting place for many people who died aboard her when she sank, and the conservation of the surrounding natural environment.
Does the International Agreement or NOAA Guidelines restrict the public from viewing recovered artifacts or learning about R.M.S. Titanic?
NOAA does not view the International Agreement or Guidelines as restricting the public viewing of recovered artifacts or learning about Titanic. To the contrary, the International Agreement promotes facilitating education and maintaining the historical context of each recovered artifact.
How does the International Agreement represent the public interest?
The International Agreement, reflects the most widely accepted public and professional archaeological and historical preservation principles currently known. The International Agreement is in the public interest because it requires that artifacts be preserved and recorded so that historical information can be extracted from the wreck without destroying it or compromising the ship’s integrity.
What was the United States position at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage (UNESCO UCH Convention) regarding regulation of salvors outside of territorial waters?
The United States supported the regulation or control of activities directed at underwater cultural heritage in all of the maritime zones in a manner consistent with international law as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) from the outset of the UNESCO UCH Convention negotiations. Under UNCLOS, coastal State jurisdiction is limited to UCH in internal waters, the 12 nm territorial sea, and the 24 nm contiguous zone. In the context of the UNESCO UCH Convention, the United States was concerned about "creeping jurisdiction" of coastal States to UCH on the continental shelf and EEZ, and therefore specifically supported the use of existing provisions of the UNCLOS regarding jurisdiction and authority over natural resources to indirectly protect UCH. As to UCH in the Area beyond the continental shelves of all states, the United States supported the use of flag State jurisdiction and other jurisdiction consistent with the UNCLOS to protect UCH. The jurisdictional approach agreed to by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Canada under the International Agreement is consistent with UNCLOS and may serve as a model for protecting UCH on the continental shelf and EEZ without raising concerns of coastal State "creeping jurisdiction.”
Are there private companies or persons with interests and rights to R.M.S. Titanic?
Titanic was a British-registered ship in the White Star Line that was owned by a United States company — in which famed American financier John Pierpont "JP" Morgan was a major stockholder. Titanic was built in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Harland & Wolff for transatlantic passage between Southampton, England, and New York City. The White Star Line went out of business and no successor in interest has claimed ownership or rights to Titanic. The Liverpool and London Steamship Protection and Indemnity Association asserted potential rights and interests in the wreck under the maritime law of salvage. However, R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. (RMST) entered into an agreement with the Liverpool and London Steamship Protection and Indemnity Association in 1994. As a result of that agreement, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia recognized RMST as the exclusive salvor-in-possession of Titanic. The property and personal effects at the wreck site may be subject to claims of private ownership but would also be subject to the maritime law of salvage and a right for a reward for its salvage or recovery.
RMST’s status as exclusive salvor in possession does not mean that the district court has conferred ownership of the wreck on RMST; rather, RMST is the only entity that may engage in salvage of the wreck. As salvor-in-possession, RMST’s activities with respect to Titanic must account for the public interest. As the Fourth Circuit explained in a 2006 decision, “the traditional law of salvage … involves the creation of a trust relationship between salvor and the court on behalf of the owner, it is not a major step to apply the same principles to historic wrecks, creating a trust relationship between the salvor and the court on behalf of the public interest.” R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. The Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 435 F.3d 521 (4th Cir. 2006). RMST’s rights as salvor-in-possession are also subject to other applicable U.S. law, including Section 113, and court orders.
RMST holds title to the artifacts recovered from the Titanic wreck site from 1987 to 2004. The rights to the artifacts from the 1987 expedition were granted to RMST’s predecessor by France, subject to an understanding that the objects would be used “in conformity with the respect due to the memory of their initial owners,” The rights to the artifacts recovered between 1993 and 2004 were granted to RMST by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in an Orderdated August 15, 2011. The Court’s order made RMST’s rights to these artifacts subject to a set of Covenants and Conditions, which RMST negotiated with NOAA and the Department of State through the Department of Justice. The Covenants and Conditions were developed to ensure that the artifacts recovered from Titanic will be conserved and curated as an intact collection in a manner consistent with current international and United States historic preservation standards (see questions 1 and 30 for more information). More information regarding the Titanic salvage case is available Set native link.
On June 14, 2016, RMST and its parent company (at the time), Premier Exhibitions, Inc., and affiliates, filed a voluntary petition for Chapter 11 of the United States Bankruptcy Code in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of Florida (In re: RMS Titanic, Inc., et al., Case No. 16-bk-2330 (Bankr. M.D. Fla.) and began to receive offers for purchase of RMST and the trove of Titanic Artifacts it had collected in previous salvage expeditions. On October 19, 2018, the bankruptcy court approved a sale to Premier Acquisition Holding Limited, LLC (PAHL) of 100% of RMST’s stock, and along with it the transfer of RMST’s Titanic artifact collections. The sale was subject to the approval by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, which issued an order on December 21, 2018 authorizing RMST to consummate the sale for a total of $19.5 million. The Covenants and Conditions carried over to PAHL.
- What are the Covenants and Conditions and what role do the Covenants and Conditions give NOAA?
The Covenants and Conditions lay out the rules for the management and preservation of the artifact collections, including (1) artifacts recovered by RMST’s predecessor entity in a 1987 dive expedition, which are subject to an in specie salvage award issued by the French Maritime Tribunal on October 20, 1993 (French collection) and (2) artifacts recovered by RMST over the course of its dive expeditions in 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2004, after the initiation of the Titanic admiralty action in 1992 (American collection). Covenants and Conditions, II., F. & G. RMST voluntarily agreed to subject the 1987 French Collection to many of the Covenants and Conditions so that those artifacts would be managed together with the American collection as a whole intact collection. The Covenants and Conditions state that the Court’s in specie salvage award shall be a trust for the benefit of and subject to the beneficial interest of the public in the historical, archeological, scientific, or cultural aspects of the wreck and its artifacts.
Under the Covenants and Conditions, NOAA represents the public interest in the Titanic Collections and exercises oversight functions in relation to the Covenants and Conditions. Covenants & Conditions, II., K. NOAA’s authority to represent the public interest in this matter is consistent with NOAA’s authority under the Titanic Memorial Act and the NOAA Guidelines. The Covenants and Conditions are also consistent with the International Agreement (for more information on these authorities see Question 1 offsite link). The Covenants and Conditions are perpetual and carry over to any owner and trustee of the collection of artifacts. Covenants & Conditions, II., F.
How does law and policy protect a British vessel, owned by a United States company, shipwrecked on the continental shelf of Canada, and found by a French-United States expedition?
The Titanic wreck site is located in waters beyond national jurisdiction and therefore is governed by international law, rather than the laws of one country. Additional information regarding State jurisdiction over vessels is available here. The overarching purpose of existing laws and regulations governing the Titanic wreck site is to preserve and protect the wreck site for present and future educational, scientific, and cultural purposes conducted in the public interest. So long as public visitation to and documentation of the wreck site is non-intrusive, it is not prohibited under the principle of freedom of navigation on the high seas, the International Agreement, or the Titanic Memorial Act. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed this open access policy for non-intrusive visitation in 1999. See RMS Titanic, Inc. v. Haver,171 F.3d 943 offsite link (1999) (holding that salvor-in-possession RMST was prohibited from preventing other parties from visiting and photographing the wreck site, so long as such activities do not constitute salvage efforts or interfere with RMST’s salvage rights).
(Last updated September 7, 2021)