There are three main laws which apply to shipwrecks: The Merchant Shipping Act 1995, the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, and the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.
SHIPPING ACT 1995
All wreck material which comes from UK territorial waters, and any wreck which is landed in the UK from outside UK territorial waters must by law (Section 236 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995) be declared to the Receiver of Wreck.
Wreck is defined as anything which is found in or on the sea, or washed ashore from tidal water. All items which are raised, regardless of age or importance, must be reported to the Receiver of Wreck.
Finders who report their finds to the Receiver of Wreck have salvage rights. The Receiver of Wreck acts to settle questions of ownership and salvage.
This part of the 1995 Merchant Shipping Act is administered by the Maritime & Coastguard Agency through the Receiver of Wreck.
PROTECTION OF WRECKS ACT 1973
The Protection of Wrecks Act (section 1) is designed to protect wrecks which are of historic, archaeological or artistic importance. Diving is prohibited on wrecks protected under this legislation, and there is an exclusion zone around the designated site.
Section 1 of this Act is administered by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport.
Under section 2 of the Protection of Wrecks Act, vessels are designated as being dangerous by virtue of their contents. There is a strict no entry policy. This is in the interest of safety of both divers and members of the public.
Section 2 of this Act is administered by the Maritime & Coastguard Agency through the Receiver of Wreck.
OF MILITARY REMAINS ACT 1986
The Protection of Military Remains Act deals with military remains of both aircraft and ships. All military aircraft are automatically designated under this legislation.
Vessels may be designated under this Act either as a Protected Place or as a Controlled Site. Divers may visit a Protected Place on a "look but don't touch" basis. Divers are prohibited from visiting Controlled Sites.
This Act is administered by the Ministry of Defence (RAF for aircraft, Navy for vessels).