The loss of life and property that can follow a marine casualty can be disastrous, but the direct losses are usually not the end of the matter.  Other liabilities can be considerable, and an increasing expense is that of wreck removal.

Where the cost of removing a wrecked vessel exceeds the vessel’s remaining value, hull underwriters will – understandably – lose interest in paying for salvage and will often treat the matter as a total loss or constructive total loss.  At that point, the costs of removing would usually fall within the remit of the owner’s protection and indemnity (liability) insurance.

The days when it may have been possible to let a wreck lie as an interesting feature for tourism, divers or future marine archaeologists would now seem to be a thing of the past. Authorities are now coming under increasing pressure to ensure any wrecks which may pose a hazard to safety or the environment are removed.

An order for wreck removal can be made by a number of authorities depending on where the wreck is located.

In Queensland, a vessel that is stranded or sinks within port limits or other state waters is likely be subject to an order from the local Harbour Master under the Transport Operations (Marine Safety) Act.  A Harbour Master is empowered to give directions to a ‘person who is responsible for something that is an obstruction, or may obstruct navigation, to remove it’.  The wording of this power is very wide, and allows the Harbour Master to make directions to a ship owner in relation to a vessel that may be lost, abandoned or stranded where the vessel may impact safe navigation or safety generally and also provides that a direction may be issued as to how and when the vessel must be removed.

If a vessel is stranded or sinks in the territorial sea or EEZ, the vessel is likely to be subject to orders from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority under the Navigation Act.  AMSA’s powers are similarly broad, including the power to require an owner of a ship or part of a ship that is ‘wrecked, stranded, sunk or abandoned on or near the coast of Australia’ to remove the vessel within a specified time.

Additionally, if a vessel is stranded or sinks within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority also has the power to require owners to remove the vessel, or to take whatever steps are necessary to protect the reef environment.

If an owner, or other responsible person, fails to comply with a proper direction from any relevant authority, the authority can proceed to remove and dispose of the vessel or wreck in any manner it sees fit, and to recover its costs from the owner (which costs they will almost certainly seek to recover).  In our experience, an owner can often facilitate a more cost effective recovery operation than if it is left to the authorities to arrange.

A person who is issued with a wreck removal order can apply to have the order withdrawn where it can be shown that there are compelling reasons to leave the wreck (or other obstruction) in situ.  This is often a matter of balancing the risks posed by the wreck, which might be related to safe navigation or the protection of the environment, against the difficulties of raising the wreck, which can often involve real risks to persons or equipment attempting to raise a wreck as well as disproportionally high costs.

In the event a removal order is received, it is important for an owner to respond quickly so as to remain on the front foot and in control of the situation to ensure that any recovery operation is conducted commercially, within appropriate time limits and, importantly, at minimum cost.

This information is intended to provide a general summary only and should not be relied on as a substitute for legal advice.

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