R.M.S Titanic - International Agreement

Undersea photograph of Titanic starboard railing
Starboard railing. (NOAA Photo Library)

The Agreement Concerning the Shipwrecked Vessel R.M.S. Titanic (International Agreement) stems from the recommendation made by Congress in the R.M.S. Titanic Maritime Memorial Act of 1986 to address looting, unwanted salvage, and other activities directed at R.M.S. Titanic and to increase protection of the wreck site. In situ preservation of the site is preferred, particularly for the two large hull portions with controlled recovery or salvage limited to artifacts in the wreck’s debris field.

Negotiation of the Agreement among representatives of Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States concluded on January 5, 2000. The United Kingdom ratified the Agreement on November 6, 2003, implementing it through Order 2003 No. 2496. The United States signed the Agreement on June 18, 2004, subject to its “acceptance”, meaning that the U.S. would need to enact domestic implementing legislation authorizing it to carry out the Agreement’s obligations before it could become a party to it.  

The U.S. enacted the necessary domestic implementing legislation on May 5, 2017, with the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017 (Public Law 115-31).  Section 113 of the Act provides:

“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.” 

On November 18, 2019, the United States deposited with the United Kingdom its acceptance of the Agreement Concerning the Shipwrecked Vessel RMS Titanic, thus bringing into force this important agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom. Following the entry into force of the Agreement, the United Kingdom amended its implementing legislation to confirm that U.K. licensing requirements apply to activities relating to the conservation or curation of artifacts found outside the hull of the wreck. See The Protection of Wrecks (RMS Titanic) (Amendment) Order 2021 No. 470 (April 12, 2021).

Since 1994, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia has exercised admiralty jurisdiction over the salvage action brought by RMS Titanic, Inc., the U.S. company that has salvor-in-possession rights to the Titanic wreck site.  All of the orders issued by the court in its supervision of the salvage action have been consistent with the 1986 Act, the NOAA Titanic Guidelines, and the International Agreement. In particular, 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.” See RMS Titanic, Inc. v. The Wrecked and 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)).  

Additional reference information: 

Updated June 26, 2023