By Sahar Adatia and Jimmy Singh.
Historic shipwrecks are a major part of Australia’s maritime heritage and offer an exciting and challenging window into the study of our country’s past.
Often described as time-capsules, these submerged resources are commonly located in rivers, harbours and lakes, or on riverbanks and foreshores, and provide a vast array of valuable knowledge about our heritage.
Indeed, each shipwreck story is woven into the intricate tapestry of a region’s history, and so, such sites are greatly protected and highly respected.
For a bunch of hoons this week, however, there was no such sense of respect who had caused permanent damage to one of the most treasured Australian shipwrecks situated on the Mid North Coast of NSW.
According to ABC News (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-05-02/hoons-could-face-jail-time-for-damaging-historic-shipwreck/11061766), the perpetrators allegedly mowed down the protruding, visible parts of Buster – a 310-tonne timber barquentine – that sits mostly buried deep beneath the sand on the Woolgoolga main beach area.
The damage done to the century-old shipwreck was deemed irreparable, with two of the most prominent parts of the wreck smashed off.
To make matters worse, the incident allegedly occurred during a joyride in a stolen vehicle along the non-4WD beach.
Woolgoolga Residents Furious at Shipwreck’s Damage
Residents of Woolgoolga’s main beach awoke to the devastating damage and expressed fury to find two pieces of the treasured wreck shattered from the main structure.
“It’s pretty devastating news for Woolgoolga [with Buster] being such a large part of its local history and maritime history,” resident Sam Newman said.
“The two most prominent parts that we see on a daily basis, now that’s gone.”
The 39-metre vessel, built in Canada, has been a fixture on the main beach for tourist and locals to observe since it washed ashore in 1893.
The obtruding parts serve as signposts for the buried wreck and these are only entirely exposed during major storms every few years.
According to Mr Newman, these are now difficult to find.
People Driving a Stolen Mitsubishi Pajero Suspected
According to NSW Police, a group of people who drove a stolen, black Mitsubishi Pajero onto the beach may be behind the incident.
The stolen vehicle was found abandoned at a nearby village.
NSW Police, Coffs Harbour City Council and the Office of Environment and Heritage continue the investigations into the damage of the protected shipwreck.
They have warned that the penalties for interfering with historic relics can be very serious and include imprisonment and fines.
Speaking of the damage, the Office of Environment and Heritage Maritime archaeologist Brad Duncan said the penalties are “a big incentive” not to destruct or disturb maritime relics.
He also said the precious shipwreck is “one of the best-preserved wrecks” he has ever seen anywhere in the country.
The Importance of Protecting Historic Shipwrecks
According to the Office of Environment and Heritage (https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/MaritimeHeritage/researchcentre/protectshipwrecks.htm), historic shipwrecks need to be protected for their heritage values and maintained for recreational, scientific and educational purposes.
While divers are allowed to use wreck sites for recreational purposes, relics are not allowed to be removed from the wreck site. Similarly, the physical fabric of the wreck must not be disturbed unless a permit has been granted.
Shipwrecks also form habitats for underwater flora and fauna, including rare and endangered species. With any kind of disturbance, these can easily be damaged.
Equally, the deliberate removal of parts for souvenirs and other commotion of shipwrecks causes irreparable damage.
Shipwrecks also hold significant potential for archaeological research, tourism and recreation for other divers, and without the appropriate care, this is greatly diminished.
A historic shipwreck includes the remains of a ship which are at least 75-years old and have been declared under section 4A(1) or (2) Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 (Clth) (http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdoc/au/legis/cth/consol_act/hsa1976235/s4a.html). It also includes a Dutch shipwreck, & Papua New Guinea shipwreck.
Is it an Offence to Damage a Historic Shipwreck?
In Australia, it is an offence to damage or remove a historic shipwreck or any items associated, unless a person has a historic shipwreck permit.
Australia protects its shipwrecks and their associated relics that are older than 75 years through the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 (https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C2016C01026). This is administered in collaboration between the Commonwealth and the States, Northern Territory and Norfolk Island.
The Act also recognises that there may be circumstances where there may be an unintentional breach. These defences include saving a human life, securing the safety of a ship or dealing with an emergency that involves a serious threat to the environment. (section 16 Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 (Clth) (http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdoc/au/legis/cth/consol_act/hsa1976235/s16.html)).
The law on destroying or causing damage to historic shipwrecks and relics is outlined in Section 13 of the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 (http://classic.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/cth/consol_act/hsa1976235/s13.html).
Anyone guilty of damaging or destroying a historic shipwreck or relics will face a maximum penalty of up to 5-years imprisonment and/or up to a fine of $21,000 for an individual. However, if a corporation does this, the maximum applicable fine is $105,000.
An alternative to this charge is the charge of intentionally or recklessly destroying or damaging property in NSW (https://www.criminaldefencelawyers.com.au/criminal-law/offences/intentionally-or-recklessly-damage-property/), carrying a maximum penalty of up to 5-years jail under section 195 Crimes Act 1900 (NSW).
Click here for an outline on what the law defines as “damage” to property in NSW (https://www.criminaldefencelawyers.com.au/blog/the-law-and-penalties-for-intentionally-or-recklessly-destroy-or-damage-property-in-nsw/).
If you have a question, contact our office on our 24/7 hotline (02) 8606 2218.
Our Sydney and Parramatta Criminal Lawyers (https://www.criminaldefencelawyers.com.au/) appear in all courts and offer a free first consultation for those who are likely to be charged or have been charged by police.