The bureaucratic battle between the Navy and marine salvors is heating up as Key West's most famous treasure family is pushing state politicians to help lead the charge.
At the core of the row are proposed regulations the Navy has crafted that apply to a piece of federal legislation known as the Sunken Military Craft Act of 2004.
Critics of those proposed regulations say it would create a legal nightmare for private and commercial salvors looking to dive on, or retrieve, sunken vessels from the ocean floor.
What it boils down to is how the Navy would define a military vessel versus a commercial, nonmilitary vessel, said Gene Lewis, lawyer for Kim Fisher -- son of Mel Fisher and owner of the family's salvage companies.
The definition of a warship could become much broader. That would limit wrecks that firms such as Fisher's could salvage due to a permitting process that Fisher maintains is intentionally complicated and wrought with loopholes.
The Navy's decision on the issue could come as early as September.
Any newly discovered colonial-era Spanish galleon -- such as the Nuestra Senora de Atocha and its sister ship, the Santa Margarita, that sank in 1622 west of Key West and was famously discovered in the 1980s by Mel Fisher -- would likely also be classified as a military vessel under the proposed regulations, Lewis said.
The military has long held that sunken warships are gravesites and they are not to be disturbed out of respect for the dead.
The Naval History and Heritage Command proposed the regulations, and any permits for salvaging commercial vessels would have to come from them. Salvors would also have to convince the Navy that the sunken ship in question is a nonmilitary vessel.
"We're trying to get them to suspend the new regulations for one year to give Congress more time for input," Lewis said.
Lewis called the new regulations a "sneak attack" that bureaucrats hoped would go unnoticed, save for the salvors who are directly affected by the changes.
Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, is helping lead the charge on behalf of Keys salvors in making more politicians aware of the issue, Lewis said.
Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner has sent a letter to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus on the issue, Raschein said.
"We've been working on this issue since spring when we first heard of it from industry folks," Raschein said. "Basically, that letter is saying let us have input, because this is going to have a devastating impact on a major industry down here in Florida."
Raschein has also been reaching out to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., as well as former Florida governor and former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham for help in getting the word out.
"We're not leaving any stones unturned," Raschein said. "We're turning up the heat, because we're running out of time if the Navy makes its decision by next month."
Another option is to lean on the U.S. Congress come funding time vis-Ã•-vis the Navy, but Raschein hopes it doesn't come to that and they're able to massage the proposed changes beforehand.
"This is a nightmare for the salvage industry," she said, adding that dive operators are worried they would be required to have the special permits to dive on artificial reefs such as the Vandenberg off Key West and Spiegel Grove off Key Largo.
Earlier this year, Naval History and Heritage Command spokesman Paul Taylor offered prepared statements, but added he could not comment further on the issue.
"The Sunken Military Craft Act, enacted in 2004, reinforced the precedent that the U.S. government retains title to its sunken military craft and associated contents regardless of the passage of time, and prevents their unauthorized disturbance," Taylor wrote in an email. "The act codifies in U.S. law the customary international law regarding state vessels that has been recognized by maritime nations for many decades. The Department of the Navy's sunken ship and aircraft wrecks represent a collection of more than 17,000 fragile, nonrenewable sunken military craft that often serve as war graves, safeguard state secrets, carry environmental and safety hazards such as oil and ordnance, and hold significant historical value."
Such language is overly broad and would seriously hinder private salvors such as Fisher, Lewis said.