The wreck sites are protected by law and harbour unique pockets of marine biodiversity, yet are increasingly disturbed, with parts salvaged illegally and historical artifacts disappearing to be traded on the black market.
The Information and Heritage Inspectorate, the heritage inspection agency and part of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, is responsible for heritage conservation and partnered with the Sea Ranger Service to carry out the pilots. Over a three-year period, Sea Rangers monitored wreck sites for all types of diving and salvaging activity. After extensive evaluation, the pilots are hailed as a success and the Dutch heritage agency has announced the commission of a new programme of ongoing inspection. The Sea Ranger Service will now monitor the sites regularly from spring 2022 onwards.
A smart combination of the Sea Rangers’ year-round presence at sea and innovative satellite technology provided by the UK based company OceanMind, offers useful insights into the activities taking place at the wreck sites. Shipwrecks are typically difficult to conserve, with monitoring capabilities often too costly. OceanMind, which typically monitors illegal fishing, agreed to utilise its innovative space technology to assist the Sea Ranger Service with the wreck monitoring work.
Founder and CEO of the Sea Ranger Service, Wietse van der Werf, is excited: “Our Sea Rangers have done an excellent job in proving that more permanent monitoring of these wreck sites is possible. Traditionally seen as too costly, we have now developed and validated a method that can offer protection to wrecks. We look forward to sharing the strategy and our lessons learnt to help authorities in other areas beyond the Netherlands achieve similar impact.”
How wrecks support life underwater
Wrecks provide a glimpse into maritime history and are increasingly cherished as underwater grave sites. In addition, as wrecks settle on the seabed, they become a refuge for underwater wildlife. Many species of underwater plants and marine wildlife are known to concentrate around wrecks. Once corals, sponges and anemones attach themselves to the wreck structures, small fish and crustaceans feed on them, in turn attracting larger predators such as sharks. As such, protecting wreck sites is an integral part of the conservation work of the Sea Ranger Service.
In addition to the obvious conservation benefits of leaving shipwrecks on the seabed, Van der Werf highlights why the protection of cultural heritage is another reason why the Sea Ranger Service has taken on the wreck monitoring work: “Hidden deep beneath the waves are millions of wrecks that tell stories of our evolving civilisation and how battles, economic conquests and industrial innovations that span our human history, came to be. The seabed holds a mosaic of unearthed human history that, when adequately protected, ensures that what remains, may be discovered and conserved for the public benefit.”
With the new wreck monitoring programme now in place, the Sea Ranger Service will explore with relevant authorities to expand the work area of the programme and provide the necessary additional capacity to improve the conservation of maritime heritage sites.
Listen to a recent podcast interview (in Dutch) on what made the collaboration between the Sea Ranger Service and the Information and Heritage Inspectorate so successful.