Underwater cultural heritage (UCH), which includes evidence of past cultures preserved in shipwrecks, enables the relevant epistemic communities to open a window to the unknown past and enrich their understanding of history. Recent technologies have allowed the recovery of more and more shipwrecks by private actors who often retrieve materials from shipwrecks to sell them. Not all salvors conduct proper scientific inquiry, conserve artifacts, and publish the results of the research; more often, much of the salvaged material is sold and its cultural capital dispersed. Because states rarely have adequate funds to recover ancient shipwrecks and manage this material, however, commercial actors seem to be necessary components of every regulatory framework governing UCH.
In this context, this Article aims to reconcile private interests with the public interest in cultural heritage protection. Such reconciliation requires that international law be reinterpreted and reshaped in order to better protect and preserve UCH and that preservation of cultural heritage be recognized as a key component of economic, social, and cultural development.