There are concerns that rising metal prices will lead to more illegal garbage collection unless the government takes action to protect the debris.
Vera Ryan doesn’t know much about her uncle Jack. Petty Officer Jack Messenger was one of 35 people on board the submarine HMAS AE1 when it sank in the early days of the first world war.
But he knows that the place where the wreckage was found is an important place, a place of remembrance for himself and hundreds of other descendants and families of deceased Australian and British sailors.
Its location off the coast of Papua New Guinea is a mystery. But it may not be hidden enough to protect it from marauding metal thieves.
There are concerns that rising metal prices will lead to more illegal cleanup of Australia’s shipwrecks.
For many years, people have been looting the wrecks for metal, including those that sank with sailors on board. Some are worried that loot hunters will target the AE1, which was found in 1914 after going missing in 2017.
Australia is struggling to protect wrecks, especially in foreign territories.
“You can’t have a war grave that’s underwater,” Ryan says. “But it’s a pity not to respect it.”
Ryan is the convener of the association of families of AE1 descendants, which consists of about 100 people related to 35 men who died when AE1 fell.
Brigadier Peter Briggs, who is leading the search for the AE1, said he was concerned the boat would be targeted by booty hunters.
“The families hate to see that there are people who are quite prepared to disrespect the wrecks,” Ryan said.
So-called metal pirates are looking for high-value metals (such as bronze propellers or low-background steel), souvenirs or just scrap metal. Metal prices are volatile but are currently on the rise for a number of reasons. British naval historian Phil Weir pointed out the link on Twitter this week. When inspectors discovered that all the ships had disappeared in 2016, it was described as a “perfect storm” of high metal prices and the failure to enforce the current rules.
Shipwreck expert Ian Macleod says high prices will encourage more people to steal from battlefields. A member of the WA Museum and marine corrosion and protection official says people will “do anything for the money.”
“What motivates people is greed, and since they are responsible for the maintenance of Australian sites, it is the government’s duty to control this greed within their capabilities.”
Macleod points out that Australia has not ratified a Unesco agreement to protect its underwater cultural heritage.
“Why can’t you make that commitment? why don’t you care?” he says.
Sussan Ley, a spokeswoman for the environment minister, said the Commonwealth was working to ratify the Unesco convention and that Ley would be “informed of this in the very near future.”
”[He] is careful to do everything we can to preserve the underwater cultural heritage,” they said.
Macleod said the AE1 was “out of sight, out of mind,” but there were also wrecks at risk closer to home, such as HMAS Voyager.
His brother witnessed the decimating collision between Voyager and HMAS Melbourne off Jervis Bay in 1964, after which he developed post-traumatic stress disorder.
“This means there is nothing in Australian territorial waters and essentially nothing in the current legislation that protects it,” Macleod says.
Macleod said there were various ways Australia could better protect shipwrecks, including those outside its territory, through agreements or other coordinated programs.
“It’s the least we can do to give peace of mind to the grandchildren and the families of the missing people directly,” he says.
The Underwater Cultural Heritage Act of 2018 protects ships and aircraft that sank 75 or more years ago, and there are also various state laws.
Ley’s spokesman said the law protects ships in Australian waters and allows the minister to declare shipwrecks protected from other Australian vessels outside Australian waters, when supported by the nearest coastal state.
They said the ministry had consulted PNG about declaring a marine protected area around the AE1 area.
The wreckage of the decommissioned world war II cruiser HMAS Perth, which was found in Indonesian waters, has already been intensively searched. Dr James Hunter, curator of naval heritage and archaeology at the Australian National Maritime Museum, says local support is needed to protect sites even with legislation.
”There needs to be someone on the ground,” he says. “You need someone at the provincial level, someone who is right there, who can respond.
“And you must have a good relationship with the foreign government you are dealing with.”
But everything requires money. Hunter says that if this were unlimited, you could use satellites or cameras attached to buoys to monitor sites.
Ryan’s father was 20 years younger than his brother Jack, who died at sea. He only saw his father Jack a few times before he died at the age of 27.
For AE1 families, he says, the story of the submarine disappearing in the fog of war has “just disappeared.” But as the search for his final resting place continues, he says they are all part of a “submarine family.”
”They weren’t lost, they were waiting to be found,” he says.
Ryan says it’s not the bodies that are important in recognizing and protecting the wreckage.
“It’s important for families to feel that there is a recognition of the place that holds the memory,” she said.