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  • By Raquel Bagnol

Underwater sites for WWII relics are playground for vandals and looters

The Pacific Islands region is host to several artifacts from World War II— referred to as underwater cultural heritage or UCH—which has attracted tourists and spectators over the years. While these vintage sights bring economic benefits through tourism, protecting and preserving these underwater artifacts can be a challenge.

Among the most common issues the islands have to deal with include looting and movement of artifacts and vandalism. Graffiti were found etched on artifacts. Tour operators were found showing tourists how to climb on or swing guns off barrels. The artifacts are also disturbed by heavy traffic from passing banana boats and jet skis, as well as rubbish left by picnickers.

In 2017, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published a 120-page report detailing how Pacific island countries and territories protecting and managing the underwater treasures. The report was a consolidation of contributions from experts and stakeholders in Australia, the Northern Mariana Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Guam and Hawaii, who noted the activities that threaten the artifacts buried in the ocean.

Chuuk, Guam Pohnpei and Yap took a locally inclusive approach to manage and protect UCH sites.

In Chuuk, some submerged WWII sites have been found to have oil and gasoline that have leaked from the sunken ships and show considerable ecological damage.

Chuuk Lagoon is very popular among shipwreck diving enthusiasts, Japanese war survivors, and U.S military historians for its over 50 shipwrecks that contain many munitions. The lagoon is also the final resting place for about 4,000 Japanese war dead. Dive tourism, dynamite fishing and artefact souvenirs is Chuuk's major economic contributor.

Chuuk has an existing law that protects and manages submerged WWII sites since 1971 but enforcement is a challenge.

The Pohnpei and Yap sites both had Japanese bases and airstrips and were regularly bombed by US aircraft. The remains of USS Mississinewa in Ulithi Atoll in Yap were carrying 3.78 million gallons of oil when the Japanese sank it on November 1944. Oil began to leak into the lagoon in 2001. The U.S. Navy recovered 1.95 million gallons from the vessel, which was sold to Singapore.

Guam has the WWI shipwreck, SMS Cormoran, a German raider that was scuttled by its crew on April 1917. The shipwreck brought significant economic benefits for Guam’s the scuba diving industry, which poured in over US$56 million in 2015. Guam's current law, however, does not encourage protection of sites but rather a financial reward for those who recover historical objects. Environmentalists, however, see a need to change this so that all Guam’s UCH is seen as cultural heritage material to be protected and promoted for the benefit of all of the Guam community.

The Palau government has taken a holistic inter-agency approach to protect and manage the numerous sunken WW11 vessels associated with the Imperial Japanese Navy and address the problem of unexploded ordnance.

The U.S. Army Technical Center for Explosives Safety recommended the three Rs approach to the public in dealing with unexploded ordnance:

Recognize – recognize when you may have encountered a munition;

Retreat – do not touch, move or disturb it, but carefully leave the area;

Report – immediately notify the policy if on land, or the U.S/ Coast Guard, if at sea.

Palau has tasked the Historic Preservation Office to ensure that UCH sites are protected from destruction, removal, damage, or alteration. Palau saw the need to raise more awareness about UCH targeting specifically the local community, divers and international tourists.

In the CNMI, the Battle for Saipan took place in June and July of 1944 which left a lot of UCH in Saipan's waters. In order to protect Saipan's UCH sites, the WWII Maritime Heritage Trail was developed in 2009 to allow scuba-divers and snorkelers to visit and get a better understanding of the UCH. Along with public outreach activities, printed materials and interpretative films are regularly shown at the American Memorial Park Visitors Center.

Hawaii has a few natural harbors or safe anchorages and its UCH includes submerged stone structures like the Hawaiian heiau (temples), ko’a (fishing structures), navigational aids, pier and wire rope landings, anchorages, communication cables and more.

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