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“Ghost Battleships” of the Pacific: Metal Pirates, WWII Heritage, and Environmental Protection


The recovery of historic, sunken military vessels raises several legal issues, including those of ownership, state immunity, environmental protection and the in situ preservation of underwater cultural heritage. In recent times, the remains of World War II (WWII) warships have increasingly vanished from the Pacific seafloor causing a serious dilemma in underwater heritage preservation and environmental protection. The illicit removal of the wrecks illustrates the jurisdictional difficulties maritime powers face in preventing unauthorised interference with their sunken military property. It is alleged that the remnants of American, Australian, British, Dutch and Japanese warships have largely been the victim of ‘metal pirates’. This paper highlights the threat posed to sunken WWII ships from metal pirates, who, unlike traditional treasure hunters, have specifically targeted ships’ fixtures and fittings, bronze propellers and metal hulls, and in some cases, even unexploded ordnance. Besides the impact on heritage conservation and integrity, the actions of metal pirates are posing a significant threat to the marine environment, particularly given that many WWII wrecks to this day still contain considerable quantities of oil, ammunition, and unexploded. The illicit salvaging of WWII wrecks has the potential to cause the release of oil and toxic chemicals into the surrounding marine water resulting in the contamination of fishing grounds, therefore threatening the wider environmental security of the Asia–Pacific region. Indeed, as the legacy of the Pacific conflict is represented by the number of warships that rest on the seafloor, there is the potential for serious environmental harm occurring unless states cooperate with one another to prevent piracy and related maritime crime. Many WWII wrecks are historically significant, such as the USS Indianapolis, sunk in 1945 after delivering components of the atomic bombs to Tinian; while others, such as Australia’s HMAS Perth, serve as war graves to their crew. As such, this paper considers the challenges states face in protecting sunken battleships from criminal syndicates who prey on the remnants of war.

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Fig. 1

Photograph: Sam Malloy (2012)

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Photograph: Browne (2012)

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Photograph: Browne (2012)

Fig. 5

Photograph: Browne (2012)


  1. Micronesia is a region of the Pacific made up of over 2000 small islands and tiny coral atolls: Torres (2013: 923).

  2. See reports from Indonesian scrap metal workers reporting of finding and discarding bones after WWII vessels were removed from the seafloor (Lamb 2018a, b; Holmes 2017b).

  3. 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (CPUCH). EIF—2 January 2009 [2562 UNTS 3].

  4. See McKinnon (2015a) for a discussion on the impact of diving/war tourism on WWII wrecks located in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

  5. The Schooner Exchange v McEaddon (1812) II US (7 Cranch) 116, 117–18. The Supreme Court evaluated the claims of US citizens to a ship that Napoleon's army had unlawfully requisitioned and then used as a French warship. The Court held that US courts had no jurisdiction over a military vessel in the service of a sovereign of another country (Song 2013: 1776–1777).

  6. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982) December 1982. EIF – 16 November 1994. [1833 UNTS 397]. Australia ratified the UNCLOS on the 5 October 1994.

  7. In situ preservation is both a scientific method for conservation of historic materials as well as a legal principle. As a legal principle of international law, its origins can be found in the precautionary principle of international environmental law. For a detailed discussion of the concept of in situ preservation see Aznar (2018).

  8. WWI wrecks have from August 2014 begun to meet the legal definition of underwater cultural heritage found in the 2001 CPUCH (McGrath 2014).

  9. See for example the German submarine U-864 sunk by the British submarine Venturer in 1945 in Norway’s waters. The submarine was en-route to Japan, carrying some 67 tons of mercury stored in steel containers (Motz and Radtke 2017).

  10. For example, deeper wrecks corrode at a much slower rate than vessels located in shallow waters (MacLeod 2016: 8).

  11. During the Cold War several losses of submarines and aircraft occurred. For example, in 1965 a US plane loaded with nuclear weapons fell into the sea off an aircraft carrier (Weir 2011: 23).

  12. Even the provisions of Part XII of the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III) regarding the protection and preservation of the marine environment do not apply to warships and State owned vessels.

  13. See for instance the 2007 Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks, transmitted by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). IMO Doc. LEG/CONF. 16/21 of 22 May 2007. EIF 14 April 2015. The Convention addresses the issue of hazardous wrecks and navigational threats and defines what constitutes a wreck. The 2007 Nairobi Convention excludes warships from its operational scope.

  14. 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (CPUCH). EIF—2 January 2009 [2562 UNTS 3]. The 2001 CPUCH stipulates in article 2 that underwater cultural heritage comprises ‘all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character which have been partially or totally underwater, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years’. This excludes WWII wrecks.

  15. The 2001 UN CPUCH and the 2015 Institut de droit Resolution on The Legal Regime of Wrecks of Warships and Other State-Owned Ships do not address the politically sensitive issue of how to manage toxic underwater cultural heritage. In addition, pursuant to article 2(1) of the 2015 Resolution ‘a wreck of an archaeological and historical nature is part of cultural heritage when it has been submerged for at least 100 years’.

  16. Note the inconsistency in the protection of historic wrecks under the 2001 CPUCH. WWII wrecks will not fall under the protection of international law until 1939. On the other hand, WWI wrecks, such as the HMS Queen Mary are protected. The HMS Queen Mary was sunk during the Battle of Jutland in May 1916 with 1266 aboard. The WWI wreck has been subjected to pillage since the 1990s: (Duell 2016).

  17. 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity. 5 June 1992. EIF 29 December 1993. [1760 UNTS 79].

  18. 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. 18 December 1982. EIF 16 November 1994 [1833 UNTS 397].

  19. 1983 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, London, 2 November 1973. EIF 2 October 1983. (73/78 MARPOL Convention).

  20. 1972 UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. 16 November 1972, Paris. EIF 17 December 1975 [1037 UNTS 151.

  21. 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage 2 November 2001, Paris. EIF 2 January 2009 [2562 UNTS 3]. Cambodia ratified the 2001 CPUCH on the 24 November 2007.

  22. For a discussion of Chinese law relating to underwater cultural heritage and sovereign immunity of sunken warships see Ran Guo (2017), especially pages 530–533. In respect to sovereign wrecks see the 2015 Institut de Droit Resolution on The Legal Regime of Wrecks of Warships and Other State-Owned Ships in International Law’. For commentary on the 2015 Resolution see Dromgoole (2015).

  23. For a discussion of the distinction between an ‘island’ and a ‘rock’, and the legal consequence see, (French 2017: 51–52; Hong 2016: 358; Schofield 2016: 340–342; Tanaka 2012). Basically, there is no right to an Exclusive Economic Zone or a continental shelf generated by structures described as a ‘rock’. See also article 121 UNCLOS III.

  24. HMAS Perth was first located in 1967, some 35 metres underwater. For an historical overview of the discovery of the wreck see the HMAS Perth 2017 Project Report. The Report was written by Kieran Hosty and James Hunter from the Australian National Maritime Museum and Shinatria Adhityatama from the Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasionalis in Jakarta and contains excellent images and diagrams of the Australian WWII wreck. Embedded in the Report are newspaper articles dating from the wreck’s discovery in 1967.

  25. Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The association includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

  26. The 2009 Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, IMO Doc. 15 May 2009. Not yet in force. [Hong Kong Convention]. Requirements for the entry into force of the agreement are set out in article 17. Similar to the provisions found in the 2007 International Maritime Organisation’s International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks [Nairobi Convention], the 2009 Hong Kong Convention does not govern military vessels. The exemption of warships and other non-commercial governmental vessels from the 2009 Hong Kong Convention stems from States’ concerns relating to sovereignty and security issues.

  27. See news reports by Lamb (2018a, b) concerning an investigation into an alleged mass grave at Brondong Port, East Java. It is alleged that the site contains bones of Dutch and British sailors removed from the stolen WWII wrecks from the South China Sea (Lamb 2018a, b).

  28. International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks, IMO Doc. LEG/CONF. 16/21 of 22 May 2007. EIF 14 April 2015 [Nairobi Convention]. The 2007 Nairobi Wreck Removal Convention was established within the framework of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and under the provisions of article 235 of UNCLOS III.

  29. For a discussion of the recognition of war shipwrecks as gravesites see (Forrest 2015).


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Browne, K. “Ghost Battleships” of the Pacific: Metal Pirates, WWII Heritage, and Environmental Protection. J Mari Arch 14, 1–28 (2019).

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