Battle brewing with divers, Navy

There appears a good chance the bureaucratic battle between commercial divers, as well as marine salvors, and the Navy, could be leaning toward the side of industry, but much of that will depend on whatever Congress does in its November session.

And an embattled and bitterly partisan Congress that has gotten little accomplished in the past has divers and salvors worried that lawmakers will gloss over the issue to the detriment of one of Florida’s core industries, particularly in the Keys.

At the core of the row are proposed regulations the Navy has crafted that apply to a piece of federal legislation known as the Sunken Military Craft Act of 2004.

Critics of those proposed regulations say it would create a legal nightmare for private and commercial salvors looking to dive on, or retrieve, sunken vessels from the ocean floor. It could also hinder charter dive boat operators who dive on sunken vessels in that they too would have to file for new federal permits that opponents say will likely not be cheap.

Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, is helping lead the charge on behalf of Keys salvors. They are trying to make more politicians — and residents — aware of the issue, and are working on behalf of dive operators who are worried they would be required to have the special permits to dive on artificial reefs such as the Vandenberg off Key West and Spiegel Grove off Key Largo.

What it boils down to is how the Navy would define a military vessel versus a commercial, nonmilitary vessel, said Gene Lewis, lawyer for Kim Fisher — son of Mel Fisher and owner of the family’s salvage companies.

The definition of a warship could become much broader. That would limit wrecks that firms such as Fisher’s could salvage due to a permitting process that Fisher maintains is intentionally complicated and wrought with loopholes.

Right now, the proposed changes are linked to the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, which has placed a year-long moratorium on implementation of those controversial proposed regulations, Lewis said.

The Fisher company. as well as Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration. a successful deep-water shipwreck salvage company. have lobbyists in Washington, D.C.. pushing legislators to educate themselves on how the new regulations could cripple the salvage industry, Lewis said.

And they want to make sure the moratorium remains in place so lawmakers have at least a year to debate the issue.

“We just got word this week from our lobbyist that they have support on the position that there has to be a moratorium,” Lewis said. “The good news is that we appear to have strong support in the House, but the bad news is that Sen. Bill Nelson is not taking a position on this and we had hoped for his support.”

Lewis added: “This should not be a partisan issue. What does any of this got to do with Republicans and Democrats? This is about divers and industry.”

Meanwhile, Fisher wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus this month asking for his attention to the issue.

“No one in our organization or industry takes any issue with the Sunken Military Craft Act as it applies to our country’s military vessels on military missions when they sank,” Fisher wrote. “The act, however, made clear that such vessels engaged in commercial activity were not to be deemed Sunken Military Craft. The proposed regulations ignore a basic premise of the act: The use of naval auxiliaries and other vessels that were owned or operated by the United States on a commercial mission are not subject to the act. Estimates have placed the value of the marine salvage industry to the Florida economy of in excess of $160 million annually providing thousands of jobs.”

Fisher cut to the chase: “The tourism and related hotel and restaurant industry in Florida employs more than 1 million persons and totals over $72 billion in annual revenues to our state. The regulations, as proposed, would devastate this industry.”

Raschein has been working with Gov. Rick Scott’s office. It now it appears they are taking a look at the issue, she said Friday. Fisher wants Scott to write a letter to officials, but that has yet to happen.

She’s also been pushing Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner’s office.

“I know it’s on their radar, because we’ve been staying on top of both,” Raschein said. “I’ve also contacted former Sen. Bob Graham, who is a good friend of Navy secretary Mabus. But right now, we’re in a holding pattern. So far, so good. “I’ll start screaming if I have to,” Raschein said, with a chuckle. “But that’s not usually my style.”

Earlier this year, Naval History and Heritage Command spokesman Paul Taylor offered prepared statements, but added he could not comment further on the issue.

“The Sunken Military Craft Act, enacted in 2004, reinforced the precedent that the U.S. government retains title to its sunken military craft and associated contents regardless of the passage of time, and prevents their unauthorized disturbance,” Taylor wrote in an email. “The act codifies in U.S. law the customary international law regarding state vessels that has been recognized by maritime nations for many decades. The Department of the Navy’s sunken ship and aircraft wrecks represent a collection of more than 17,000 fragile, nonrenewable sunken military craft that often serve as war graves, safeguard state secrets, carry environmental and safety hazards such as oil and ordnance, and hold significant historical value.”

Such language is overly broad and would seriously hinder private salvors such as Fisher, Lewis said.

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