State minister’s questioning of removal of shipwrecks raises issues of jurisdiction and treasure hunting

KOTA KINABALU: The ‘mystery’ of Sabah’s missing WWII shipwrecks continues. The blot and plot thickens. Apparently, some feathers have been ruffled.

However, the public perception in Sabah is about the leaden-footed response to this scam that has thrown the credibility of certain enforcement agencies into a death spiral.

This scam has surfaced with reports that state Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Masidi Manjun wants to know why the wrecks of three Japanese World War II cargo ships were removed from waters off the northern coast of Kota Belud district late last year.

The wrecks, located in Usukan Bay, are a popular diving attraction for local and foreign tourists. The removal of the wreckage has angered fishermen, diving enthusiasts and environmental groups.

Revenue for resorts from diving enthusiasts has dropped dramatically.

The book ‘Shipwrecks and Sunken Treasures of the South China Seas’ written by Tony Wells weaves a fascinating story of the rich trading history of the Spice Route and of the thousands of ships that came here in search of riches.

It explores some of the reasons why the ships sank and provides an eye-opening account of the fabulous treasures that still lie undisturbed beneath the waters of Southeast Asia.

As for the removal of the wrecks, the first bizarre explanation given is that the wrecks were removed because their metal bodies could contaminate and affect marine life in the bay, which is a popular fishing area.

The next explanation given is that the three vessels that sank carried 3,000 tonnes of bauxite, a hazardous substance.

The latest explanation is that the work done by Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) on the three World War II shipwrecks at Usukan Bay was archaeological.

Masidi asked, “What does an archaeologist have to do with the toxic material?”

“I’m sure they are smart to know if the parties involved had breached the laws and whether it warrants prosecution,” said Masidi.

In the first place did the university officials misrepresent themselves to the public? Was UMS aiding treasure hunters?

Before we sound the alarm bells, it would be wise for the minister to explain further on The National Heritage Act 2005.

Did the culprits breach ‘The National Heritage Act 2005’ in anyway?

Question of ownership

This is an act to provide for the conservation and preservation of national heritage — natural heritage, tangible and intangible cultural heritage, underwater cultural heritage, treasure trove and other related matters.

Next is the question of territorial waters, jurisdiction, funding and who keeps the bounty?

The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is an area of coastal water and seabed within a certain distance of a country’s coastline, to which the country claims exclusive rights for fishing, drilling and other economic activities. It stretches from the baseline out to several nautical miles from its coast.

Which are the areas that come under state and federal jurisdictions, when it comes to salvaging treasure troves from the seabed?

Which agency is funding or handing out grants to Ugeens Berjaya Enterprise, a Sabah-based company?

As shipwrecks became objects of antiquity, the lure of fortune and fame resulted in the hunting and plundering of many treasure-laden shipwrecks.

In order to protect sanctuary resources, let’s be clear on which government agency regulates activities, issues permits, assesses civil penalties and conducts other enforcement.

It’s time to educate the public on who keeps the bounty found at sea.

When it comes to the law of the sea, it’s not quite as clear cut as “finders keepers.”

Whether the treasure is gold coins found in a sunken ship or a crate of beer washed ashore, what’s up for grabs depends on where it’s found and to whom it belongs.

Also read:

The ‘mystery’ of Sabah’s missing WWll wrecks