FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Who owns the Robert J Walker?
The United States Coast Survey Steamer (USCSS) Robert J. Walker was owned by the United States Government when it sank on June 21, 1860, off Absecon Inlet, New Jersey, en route from Norfolk to New York in the service of the Coast Survey. The Walker was not abandoned, and is therefore still owned by the U.S. Government consistent with the laws and policies that apply to sovereign immune public vessels. For example, the President’s Statement on the United States Policy for the Protection of Sunken State Craft explains how the U.S. Government retains title to all of its sunken vessels, “unless title has been abandoned or transferred in the manner Congress authorized or directed,” regardless of the passage of time. 37 WCPD 95.
What laws protect the Walker from looting and unwanted salvage to ensure that it is being properly protected and managed?
As the U.S. Government owns the Walker, laws regarding the protection and management of Government property apply, including, but not limited to: the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) (16 U.S.C. § 470); and laws regarding the destruction or theft of U.S. Government property (18 U.S.C. § 641 et seq.). Under the maritime law of salvage, public and private owners have the right to deny salvage. In addition, U.S. sovereign wrecks are immune from arrest under the law of salvage without the consent of the U.S. Government, and in this instance the Department of Commerce (DOC) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as the management agency (See the next Q&A). As such, the law of salvage and authority of federal Admiralty courts may also provide protection of the Walker from looting and unauthorized salvage.
Is the Department of Commerce (DOC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) responsible for protecting and managing the Walker?
Yes. The USCSS Walker was managed by the U.S. Coast Survey when it sank. Since then, the wreck has neither been abandoned nor been designated surplus property by the United States. As the Coast Survey is now part of NOAA, DOC/NOAA is the federal agency that manages the Walker on behalf of the U.S. Government. Because the Walker is a historic shipwreck, DOC/NOAA also has a responsibility under the NHPA to consider it for listing as a “historic property” on the National Register and to develop a plan for its management and preservation. The wreck will be prominently marked on official U.S. nautical charts and other notices. NOAA will ask the fishing community to try to avoid trawling or dredging near it; NOAA will also work with others to avoid any activities that might harm the wreck site and therefore make it less of a diving attraction as well as an historic site.
Text of the National Historic Preservation Act
How does NOAA plan to address its responsibilities for the management and preservation of the Walker under the NHPA?
NOAA will work with stakeholders, including the New Jersey wreck diving and fishing communities; the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Officer; the Department of the Interior; the U.S. Coast Guard; the National Marine Fisheries Service; the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation; and other interested parties in developing a Programmatic Management Agreement under the National Historic Preservation and National Environmental Policy Acts. In order to collect baseline information for the development of management strategies and alternatives, NOAA intends to work closely with the wreck diving community on projects to map and document the Walker in recognition of the community’s assistance in finding and identifying the Walker, and its continued interest in diving the site, which will be maintained with no restrictions on non-intrusive access.
Will the Walker become a national marine sanctuary like the USS Monitor and be restricted from public diving access?
No. NOAA has no intention of creating a sanctuary on or around the Walker. The public will continue to be able to dive the Walker to view and take pictures of the wreck so that it can be enjoyed by current and future generations of divers. There will be education and outreach about the history of the wreck site and how diving should be conducted in a manner that is respectful of the site as the final resting place and gravesite of 20 crew members. Divers do not need permits to visit the Walker. However, in recognition of the Walker as a grave site and historically significant wreck, the structure and artifacts should not be disturbed (as in moving or removing artifacts) without NOAA authorization.
Is there a ban on recovery of artifacts or will NOAA permit recovery of artifacts?
As a matter of policy and practice, in situ preservation – leaving artifacts in place – is the preferred option for preserving the wreck for the public interest in this wreck as a destination for diving and bottom fishing, as a memorial for the lives that were lost when it sank, and the archaeological and historical value of the site. See:NOAA Guidelines for Research, Exploration and Salvage of RMS Titanic, 66 Fed. Reg. 18905, April 12, 2001 for guidelines on exploring and researching a shipwreck that is also a grave site. As the Walker rests at a depth of 85 feet in a mud hole, partially covered by silt, the wreck appears to be sufficiently preserved in situ while still accessible to the public. NOAA’s management plan will facilitate continued diving and fishing activities in a manner consistent with historic preservation law and policy and to enhance the diving and interpretive experience. While in situ preservation is preferred and collecting Walker artifacts as “souvenirs” will not be authorized, NOAA is willing to cooperate in scientific research and recovery or salvage of artifacts for conservation, curation and display in a museum open to the public done in compliance with the Federal Archeology Program (FAP) and the NHPA will be part of its management. See:Curation of Federally Owned and Administered Archaeological Collections, 36 C.F.R. 79.
What, if anything, does NOAA plan to do about artifacts divers have collected off the wreck over the years?
NOAA’s site management plan is prospective and will focus on future activities. NOAA is not seeking any action against persons who recovered artifacts before the public knew it was U.S. Government property. NOAA recognizes that some divers and artifact collectors want to contribute to the scholarship of our nation’s maritime heritage through the artifacts in their possession. In regard to those artifacts, NOAA would like to explore setting up an arrangement with a museum of public access, such as the New Jersey Maritime Museum, where people can donate their Walker artifacts for conservation and public display. In addition to sharing the story of the Walker, this exhibit would recognize the role of wreck divers in locating and identifying the wreck as well as helping tell its story.
Does NOAA protect other shipwrecks?
Yes. NOAA administers and acts in the public interest to research, assess and protect nationally significant cultural sites and resources, particularly in the National Marine Sanctuary System. The submerged maritime heritage of the United States includes iconic shipwrecks outside of sanctuaries and U.S. waters.
I would like to visit the wreck site of the Walker. Are tours available?
NOAA is not involved in any operations that take visitors to the wreck site. Private companies may offer Walker-related tours, and NOAA encourages operators who visit the wreck to do so understanding that it is a grave site and a U.S. Government-owned wreck. Responsible tourism can offer the benefit of increasing public awareness of, and support for, the continued preservation of the wreck site.
What are the protocols for diving on a U.S. Government-owned ship?
Divers may dive on government-owned ships at their own risk. However, federal property law dictates that no portion of a government wreck may be disturbed or removed. As stated above, unauthorized removal of any property from a USG-owned wreck is illegal. Sections of the U.S. Code have been successfully applied in prosecuting individuals who violate U.S. government wreck sites. Government wrecks may contain unexploded ordnance and pose other hazards and should be approached with the utmost caution. However, NOAA strongly encourages cooperation with other agencies and individuals interested in preserving our maritime heritage. The diving public is encouraged to report the location of underwater heritage sites to the NOAA Maritime Heritage Program. Documentation of these wreck locations allows NOAA to evaluate and preserve important sites for the future.
What if I witness another diver improperly removing artifacts from the Walker?
If you witness the theft of material from the Walker, report it to the U.S. Coast Guard, and to your State Historic Preservation Officer or State Underwater Archaeologist. Vandalism of public property is both illegal and inconsiderate to other divers. If theft or destruction is unreported, underwater sites will soon be destroyed and unavailable for future use. Everyone benefits if the Walker remains accessible as an interesting dive site.
Will tourism hurt the Walker wreck site?
NOAA encourages members of the public to visit and explore historical shipwrecks in national marine sanctuaries, and encourages ongoing as well as increased diver access to the Walker site. NOAA recognizes the professionalism and experience of the wreck diving community and the dive charter operators who visit the wreck, and appreciates all that they do and can continue to do to avoid any potential negative impacts on the site.
Is information about the Walker publicly available?
NOAA Office of Coast Survey has several resources available online about the USCSS Robert J. Walker:
The Story of the Coast Survey Steamer Robert J. Walker
Information on the Robert J. Walker Memorial
NOAA observes World Hydrography Day by honoring lost crew members from our history
NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ Maritime Heritage Program will soon release a report that explains more about the Walker’s history and about what remains at the wreck site.