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Marine salvage is an area of law which encompasses numerous international agreements and conventions regarding the recovery of vessels and goods lost at sea. When a merchant's ships or cargo are lost at sea due to inclement weather, equipment failure, forced scuttling, or other incident, those in the marine salvage industry attempt to recover the lost property for a profit. Laws vary greatly in regard to marine salvage rights, depending on the jurisdiction of the shipwreck or otherwise abandoned property. As such, salvors operate under two primary types of salvage: contract salvage or pure salvage.
Contract salvage involves the original owner contracting a salvor to recover or rescue lost property for a set fee or percentage. Since the recovery effort is a direct agreement between the rightful property owner and the salvage company, there is less risk of dispute. Both parties, therefore, require less understanding of marine salvage laws other than compliance with local or international laws governing such operations in a particular area.
On the other hand, pure salvage professionals operate under no contract, with salvors taking on more of a treasure hunting approach. Pure salvage operations elicit the most disputes, with prior owners often seeking to lay claim to their property after it is rescued. Since the goal of the salvor is to find wreckage of value to sell, the issue of ownership weighs into their chance for profits. For the professional salvor, pure salvage projects require the highest understanding of laws governing marine salvage in order to establish proper ownership and right to profit from rescued vessels, goods, or equipment.
The first laws regarding marine salvage, as well as other matters of a maritime nature, the Rhodian Laws, appear in both Roman and Byzantine historical literature. Historically, these laws gave way to admiralty laws adopted by countries such as England, the United States, Italy, and others. Admiralty laws are often confused with the Law of the Sea, which deals primarily with international relations, mining rights, and practices employed on the open sea. Unlike the Law of the Sea, admiralty laws cover the business relationships involved in seafaring operations, as well as international law.
Professionals and novice divers alike participate in various forms of marine salvage, but international law requires compliance with the same laws for both private and commercial salvors. A group of private divers treasure hunting off the coast of Mexico must follow the same maritime laws regarding salvaged goods as professional salvors working on deep sea salvage. While many laws regarding marine salvage are the same in most countries, thanks to the adoption of various international practices, each jurisdiction has its own variations on when, how, and where salvors may profit from pure salvage operations.