The federal government updated guidelines protecting historical sites on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, shipwrecks that date back as far as the 17th century.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management estimates there are more than 2,100 historic shipwrecks in the Gulf’s federal waters. A 1966 law requires that the bureau guide oil-and-gas companies drilling in the outer continental shelf to assure archeological sites are preserved.
Frank Cantelas, a marine archaeologist with the Office of Ocean Exploration and Research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, likened the ships to “time capsules.”
“They’re a finite cultural resource,” he said. “Somehow, a ship tragically sank and captured that moment, and it offers a glimpse of how people were living at a particular time.”
The update, issued Thursday, adds new portions of the ocean floor that are considered likely locations for shipwrecks. Those designated blocks of ocean floor require surveys and archaeological reports prior to drilling.
A statement released by Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Tommy Beaudreau says the update was prompted by “new information, recent discoveries and advances in hydrographic survey technology.”
The government periodically updates its notice, but the changes signify a gradual shift in the way the bureau protects historic underwater sites, according to Robert Church, a marine archaeologist with C&C Technologies, a Lafayette-based survey company.
“The government is moving away from this idea of a ‘high probability predictive model’ of where shipwrecks are likely to be, to understanding that shipwrecks can be anywhere there is water, anywhere that ships go,” he said. “There have been holes in those regulations. They’re trying to make sure survey work is done prior to any activity that will affect the bottom.”
Without first surveying blocks, oil-and-gas companies may disrupt historic sites without even realizing it.
The Mica Shipwreck was discovered in 2001 after ExxonMobil built a pipeline on top of it. The 200-year-old schooner was found under 2,600 feet of water off the Louisiana coast. After determining that moving the pipeline would have further disturbed the site, the Department of the Interior instead opted to have ExxonMobil and its venture partner, BP, pay for an archeological investigation of the ship.
Incidents like this could be avoided with preliminary surveys, marine archeologists say, especially thanks to the advances in hydrographic-survey technology cited in the bureau’s statement.
“Over the last 10 to 15 years, the ability to take a good look at the ocean floor through mapping techniques, mostly using sound and sonar, has increased significantly,” Cantelas said. “And an increasing number of companies are using autonomous-underwater vehicles, which can collect high-resolution images of the bottom and move at high speeds.”
The shipwrecks in the Gulf date as far back as early Spanish explorers and as recently as 50 years ago.
In 2001, the U-166, a famed World War II era German submarine, was found 140 miles from where it was thought to have sunk. Its location suggested that the boat had not been downed by two Coast Guard pilots as originally thought, but by the PC-566, a Navy patrol boat that fired at the German submarine after it attacked a passenger freighter.
“It affected a lot of people who, in that case, were still alive. By studying the archeology we were able to correct history that was very personal for people,” said Church, who worked on the U-166 recovery research. “It’s our cultural heritage. It’s part of who we are.”