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Draft underwater heritage act sent for review
Draft underwater heritage act sent for review

In light of underwater archeology’s status as an emerging international cultural issue, the Ministry of Culture has drafted the nation’s first “Underwater Cultural Heritage Preservation Act,” which has been submitted for review to the Legislative Yuan on Nov. 6.

Culture Minister Lung Ying-tai explained that “Taiwan must include its oceans in its vision. We cannot afford to only lay eyes on heritage sites on land; Taiwan is surrounded by seas that are full of treasures. We cannot remain in a position where we are unable to protect our underwater heritage simply because there is no law to govern related matters.”

The Minister pointed out that maritime superpowers such as the United Kingdom, Spain, and Canada have declared sovereignty over shipwrecks and underwater archeological sites in their waters through legislation, and the United Nations has begun promoting a convention on underwater cultural heritage preservation.

Moreover, Taiwan’s neighboring countries, including Vietnam, Thailand, and mainland China, have all begun to carry out underwater archeological excavations in their territorial waters. The proposed legislation for underwater cultural heritage preservation will not only put Taiwan on the frontline of the global cultural movement but also highlight the nation’s determination to safeguard its underwater assets, the Minister pointed out.

The Ministry of Culture has already made an orchestrated effort to cultivate related professionals and to collect critical data. In addition to sending local experts to a co-op training program with France, the Academia Sinica has also been tasked with surveying the waters surrounding Penghu County, Tainan County, the Dongsha Islands, Green Island, and Dongyin Island.

A total of 79 wreckages and historic sites have been identified by the Academia Sinica team, and the artifacts waiting to be excavated from these sites may very well reveal a history of turmoil and changes in the Taiwan Strait over the past century, Lung said.

The Minister also noted that Taiwan’s territorial waters include important waterways such as the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, which are rich in underwater assets. However, because there currently is no national law specifically regulating underwater cultural heritage, the government has no means to regulate and prevent foreign vessels from salvaging cultural assets in these waters. “The need for such legislation is really imminent,” Lung stated. 

The “Underwater Cultural Heritage Preservation Act” was drafted in reference to interventional conventions and the precedents set forth by other maritime nations. The Minister also incorporated opinions and feedback from the nation’s scholars, experts, and members of the general public to deal with such matters as the preservation, management, and ownership of underwater assets; the scope and rights to the nation’s territorial waters; and violations that can be punished for up to NT$10 million (approximately US$327,000).

The draft act is now pending approval from the Executive Yuan, after which it would seek ratification from the Legislative Yuan before coming into full effect. 

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