Culture and heritage

Maritime heritage

Wreck inspector powers

Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 - Summary of key provisions and powers of official Wreck Inspectors

Note: Wreck Inspectors include all serving State and Federal Police as well as designated officers appointed by the Commonwealth. In New South Wales a number of Roads & Maritime Services (Maritime) officers, Marine Parks Authority staff and National Parks & Wildlife Service (OEH) staff are also designated Wreck Inspectors. Wreck Inspectors, apart from Police, are issued with a Wreck Inspector identification card which they must have with them when carrying out activities under this Act. Police also, unless in uniform, must carry their police identification when carrying out activities under this Act.

Wreck Inspector powers

The powers of inspectors are contained within Sections 23-25 of the Act.

Under Section 23 where an inspector has reasonable grounds for believing an offence has been committed, or believes that evidence of an offence may be obtained by such action, the inspector may:

  • Board a ship
  • Require a person in charge of a ship to facilitate boarding
  • Open, or require a person to open, any cargo holds, compartments or containers and inspect their contents
  • Require a person in charge of a ship to produce any permit in force under the Act
  • Require a person to answer question.

Section 23 makes it an offence to:

  • Fail, without reasonable excuse, to comply with a requirement of an inspector, made under the Section
  • Make a statement that is false or misleading in a material particular in response to a question required to be answered. Note: It is reasonable excuse not to answer a question on the grounds that it may incriminate the person
  • Hinder, obstruct, assault or threaten an officer exercising powers under this Section.

There is a specific power of arrest, without warrant, granted under Section 24. This power relates to instances where the Wreck Inspector reasonably believes that an offence against Section 13 (interference with a declared wreck) or the regulations made in relation to protected zones has been committed and that proceedings by way of summons will not be effective. Where an arrest is made in accordance with Section 24, Wreck Inspectors must (except for police in uniform) produce to the person arrested their Wreck Inspector card or police identification certificate. Powers of arrest in relation to other offences under the Act are not affected by Section 24.

Section 25 permits the seizure of any ship, equipment or article reasonably believed to have been used or otherwise involved in the commission of an offence against this Act. Anything seized under this provision may be retained for 60 days or until any prosecution is finalised. The Minister responsible for administering the Act may direct that anything seized under this Section be returned to the owner or to the person from whom it was seized. Upon conviction a court may order forfeiture of anything seized.


Section 13 of the Act makes it an offence to do any of the following, unless the person has a permit:

  • Damage or destroy an historic shipwreck or historic relic
  • Interfere with an historic shipwreck or historic relic
  • Dispose of an historic shipwreck or historic relic; or
  • Remove an historic shipwreck or historic relic from Australia, Australian waters or from waters above the continental shelf of Australia.

Regulation 4 provides for offences in relation to protected zones, unless authorised by permit.

They are:
Bring into a protected zone equipment constructed or adapted for the purpose of diving, salvage or recovery operations, or any explosives, instruments or tools the use of which would be likely to damage or interfere with an historic shipwreck or historic relic situated within that protected zone.

  • Use within a protected zone any such equipment, explosives, instruments or tools
  • Cause a ship carrying any such equipment, explosives, instruments or tools to enter, or remain within, a protected zone
  • Trawl, or dive or engage in any other underwater activity, within a protected zone
  • Moor or use ships within a protected zone.

A protected zone is that area surrounding a wreck over 75 years of age or declared by the Minister to be protected. At present the only two wrecks that have a protected zone surrounding them in this State are the ss Duckenfield off Long Reef near Sydney and the ss Lady Darling between Narooma and Bermagui on the NSW south coast. The zone surrounding the Duckenfield is within a 200m radius of the wreck and the zone surrounding the Lady Darling is within a 150m radius of the wreck.

Other offences under the Act include:

  • Failing to notify the Minister within 30 days of possession, custody or control of an historic relic or article (s.9)
  • Failing to provide, or the providing of false information upon request by the Minister (S.10)
  • Failing to comply with a direction (S.15) and Failing to notify the discovery or misleading information in respect of the same (S.17)
Page last updated: 16 October 2012