We are frequently asked questions about the law of salvage and wrecks. These questions are usually something like "If I find a vessel adrift or in trouble and put a line on it or otherwise save it, is it mine?" or "If something washes up on the beach, can I keep it?" or "If I find lost treasure (or a shipwreck or an airplane hull), is it mine?". The answer in all cases is no. Generally, one does not become the owner of maritime property merely because the person saves it or finds it. If a person renders assistance to a vessel in distress and saves it, they are entitled to a salvage award, not an ownership interest. If a person finds lost or abandoned maritime property, they are required to report it to the Receiver of Wrecks and they are entitled to a salvage award. Both the law of salvage and the law of wrecks are governed extensively by statute and regulations. The most relevant statutes are the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 ("CSA, 2001") and the Navigation Protection Act ("NPA"). The Marine Liability Act ("MLA") is also relevant, but less so.
Salvage is one of the ancient maritime laws. It is concerned with the saving of life or property at sea. Generally,when maritime property is in danger and a volunteer successfully saves the property, the volunteer is entitled to a salvage award that is determined by the courts. The three necessary elements to a salvage award are: danger; voluntary assistance; and success. If the property is not in danger, no salvage award is payable. If the person is not a volunteer (i.e. is under some legal obligation to render assistance), salvage is not payable. (But note that pursuant to s. 147 of the CSA, 2001, assisting a person at sea, responding to distress signals or following the directions of a rescue coordinator does not disentitle a person to a salvage award.) If the salvage attempt is not successful, no salvage award is payable ("no cure no pay").
The amount of the salvage award is dependent on a number of factors including: the value of the saved property; the extent of the danger; the time required and the expenses and losses of the salvor; the skill of the salvor; and the risks and liabilities avoided by reason of the salvage (i.e. pollution).
Although there is no necessity or requirement that there be a contract between the salvor and the owner of the property in danger, most large scale commercial salvage operations today are done under a salvage contract. The most well known, if not the most common, of these is the Lloyd's Open Form Salvage Agreement, which includes a "no cure no pay" provision as well as arbitration to determine the salvage award. Such contracts are valid but, pursuant to art. 7 of the Salvage Convention (see below) are subject to annulment if entered into under undue influence or the influence of danger or if the payment is excessive for the services rendered.
Salvage has traditionally been considered to be a "maritime lien", which means that a claim for salvage is not defeated by a change in the ownership of the salved property and that the claim has a fairly high priority in the event of a priorities dispute. Pursuant to s. 86(4) of the CSA 2001, a lien arising from a claim for salvage has priority over all claims except costs relating to the arrest and sale of the vessel.
The limitation period for a salvage claim is two years from the date the salvage services were rendered but this period may be extended to the extent and on such conditions as the court deems fit. (CSA 2001, s.145, and Art. 23 of the Salvage Convention)
Salvors are entitled to limit their liability pursuant to article 2 of the Convention on Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims, 1976, as amended by the Protocol of 1996.(the "LLMC"; Schedule 1 to the MLA) Claims for salvage are, however, exempted from limitation pursuant to art. 3 of the convention.(Schedule 1 to the MLA) The limits of liability for any salvor not operating from any ship or for any salvor operating solely on the ship to or in respect of which he is rendering salvage services, shall be calculated according to a tonnage of 1,500 tons. (Art. 6 r. 4 of the LLMC)
Salvage law is predominantly governed by the CSA 2001 which, pursuant to s. 142 implements the International Convention on Salvage, 1989 (Schedule 3 to the CSA 2001). The Salvage Convention applies to both salvage operations at sea and in inland waters. (Canada could have declared the convention did not apply to inland waters under article 30 but did not do so in its reservations, which are recorded in Part 2 of Schedule 3 to the CSA 2001.)
In summary, the main provisions of the Salvage Convention are:
Maritime property that is considered of historical or cultural significance may not be subject to salvage. In Part 2 of Schedule 3 to the CSA 2001, the Government of Canada specifically reserved the right not to apply the Salvage Convention "when the property involved is maritime cultural property of prehistoric, archaeological or historic interest and is situated on the seabed". To date, we are not aware of any case in which such a designation has been specifically made, however, we are aware that the Government of Canada is actively looking at this topic. Moreover, there are a number of provincial statutes that purport to apply to maritime ship wrecks that prohibit disturbing the wreck in any way. (See for example the Heritage Conservation Act of British Columbia which declares any ship (or airplane) wreck a heritage object after only two years.) Whether and/or to what extent these provincial acts are constitutionally applicable to ship wrecks is a matter of debate but, as most of them make it an offence to breach their provisions, it would be wise to seek professional advice before disturbing any property found on the sea bed.
The law of "wrecks" is related to but different from salvage. It concerns derelict (i.e. abandoned) vessels, wrecked vessels, stranded vessels, vessels in distress and any other property that is found floating (flotsam) or washed ashore (jetsam) or on the bed of the sea (lagan). "Wreck" is defined in s. 153 of the CSA 2011 as including:
(a) jetsam, flotsam, lagan and derelict and any other thing that was part of or was on a vessel wrecked, stranded or in distress; and
(b) aircraft wrecked in waters and anything that was part of or was on an aircraft wrecked, stranded or in distress in waters.
The finder of a wreck is not entitled to retain the wreck or any part thereof or any lost cargo. To the contrary, the finder is required to report the find to the Receiver of Wrecks, an office created under the provisions of the CSA 2001, and must deal with the wreck as directed by the Receiver.The finder is, however, entitled to a salvage award which is determined by the Receiver but which cannot exceed the value of the wreck. The law relating to wrecks is addressed in Part 7 of the CSA 2001 which provides:
It should be noted that the above provisions apply only where the owner of the wreck is not known by the finder. If the owner is known, the finder is only entitled to claim a salvage award unless the finder can prove the owner has abandoned the property. This requires that the finder commence court proceedings for a declaration the owner has abandoned the property and that the finder has title. (See, for example, the unreported decision in All Tow Boat Moving Ltd. v Lovdahl et al. (FCTD) T-2085-14 (2015-03-02), a copy of which can be found here). One would think that this would be a rare occurrence since, if the wreck has value, the owner will not abandon it. Additionally, a declaration of title would make the finder liable for any pollution emanating from the wreck and possibly for wreck removal expenses.
A vessel, or part of one, that is wrecked, sunk, partially sunk lying ashore or grounded is an obstruction within the meaning of the Navigation Protection Act (the "NPA") and is subject to the provisions of that act. In summary, such vessels must be removed by the owner or person in charge, and if they fail to do so, the Crown will do so at the owner's expense. More specifically, the provisions provide:
Under Canadian law there is no right to limit liability in respect of claims for wreck removal. Pursuant to Article 18 of the Convention on Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims, 1976, as amended by the Protocol of 1996 and Part 3 of Schedule 1 to the MLA, Canada has exempted from limitation of liability "Claims in respect of the raising, removal, destruction or rendering harmless of a ship that is sunk, wrecked, stranded or abandoned, including anything that is or has been on board that ship".
The Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks, 2007 is a brand new convention that comes into force on 14 April 2015. The convention applies to "wrecks" in the territorial waters of signatory states but can be extended to include internal waters. Canada is not a party to the convention but Transport Canada has recommended that Canada accede to the convention and apply it to Canada's internal waters and territorial sea in two separate discussion papers. The 2010 Transport Canada discussion paper on this can be found here. In July 2015 Transport Canada issued a second discussion paper with specifics of what is proposed to be implemented in Canada. The 2015 discussion paper can be found here.
In summary, the convention requires that a "wreck" be reported and, if it is determined the "wreck" is a hazard to navigation or the environment, the wreck must be removed. The convention requires owners to have compulsory insurance to cover the costs of wreck removal and provides for direct action against the insurers. The owner of the "wreck" is responsible for the costs of removal unless the owner proves the wreck:
The convention permits the owner to limit liability under any applicable national law or convention but, as indicated above, Canada and many other countries have exempted wreck removal claims from limitation of liability.
The limitation period established by the convention is three years from the date the "wreck" is determined to be a hazard but subject to a maximum of six years from the date of the casualty.
The database contains 11 case summaries relating to Salvage and Wrecks. The summaries are sorted in reverse date order with 20 summaries per page. If there are more than 20 summaries, use the navigation links at the bottom of the page.
Jones Marine Group Ltd. v. Canada (Transport, Infrastructure and Communities), 2018 FC 613Précis: The Federal Court refused to set aside an order for the removal of a sunken tug boat.
Facts: Jones Marine Group Ltd sought judicial review of the then acting Regional Manager of Transport Canada’s decision to order the removal of a sunken tugboat owned by Jones Marine, the “Samantha J”, from Northumberland Channel, near Nanaimo, B.C. The tugboat sank on October 6, 2014 at an anchorage location used by the Nanaimo Port Authourity for vessels up to 225 meters in length. BC Coast Pilots had refused to anchor vessels in that location due to the presence of the sunken tug, citing risks to navigation. On January 6, 2015 a notice to remove was issued and the sunken tug was to be removed no later than March 16, 2015. A second notice was issued on October 6, 2015 for a removal by December 31, 2015. A third notice was issued on November 9 2016 for removal by December 31, 2016.
Decision: Application dismissed. The decision to issue the notice was reasonable.
Held: The court applied the Dunsmuir correctness standard of review for procedural fairness and denied Jones’ claim for legitimate expectation, concluding that there was no breach of procedural fairness in making the decision to issue the notices and that the decision overall was reasonable. Justice Phelan, writing for the court, found that the evidentiary factors supporting the decision, which included the limitation on anchoring, fouling of the wreck, and the BC Coast Pilots refusals to use the anchorage, was “more than sufficient justification” for the decision.
Lepage v. Bowen Island Municipality, 2018 BCSC 613Précis: The British Columbia Supreme Court refused to strike a Notice of Civil Claim, suggesting that permission from the Receiver of Wrecks to destroy a vessel might not be a defence to a claim for conversion.
Facts: The plaintiff was the owner of a sailboat which the defendant municipality considered to be a derelict. The municipality contacted the Receiver of Wrecks about the boat and was told by the Receiver that “it was free to proceed with the salvage of the sunken vessel”. The municipality had the vessel destroyed. The self-represented plaintiff commenced action against the municipality. The municipality filed a defence and then brought this application to strike the Notice of Civil Claim or, alternatively, for summary judgment.
Decision: Application dismissed.
Held: The defendant municipality alleges that it was authorized by the Receiver of Wrecks to take possession of and to dispose of the vessel. However, the provisions of the Canada Shipping Act, 2001, S.C. 2001, c. 26 relating to wrecks do not limit or extinguish the availability of common law causes of action. The plaintiff’s pleading is sufficient to support the tort of conversion. Moreover, the evidence falls short of establishing the vessel was a wreck within the meaning of the Canada Shipping Act, 2001. The defendant has failed to prove there is no genuine issue for trial.
Cameco Corp. v. The MCP Altona, 2013 FC 23Précis: The Federal Court considered s. 139 of the MLA but confirmed the priority of a mortgagee.
The “MCP Altona” was sold by judicial sale following a spill of yellowcake uranium in one of her holds. Following the spill, the plaintiff, the owner of the uranium cargo, arranged and paid for the discharge of the uranium cargo as well as other cargo on the ship and undertook remedial efforts to clean the ship. The plaintiff allegedly incurred expenses in excess of $8 million. The plaintiff sought priority to the proceeds of sale for these costs over the mortgagee of the vessel. The plaintiff argued that it should have priority on four grounds: 1. the discharge of the cargo and remediation of the ship were necessary to bring the ship to sale and those costs should enjoy a priority akin to marshal’s expenses; 2. the services it rendered to the vessel have the status of a maritime lien pursuant to s. 139 of the Marine Liability Act; 3. the services it rendered to the ship were in the nature of salvage services having a priority pursuant to the International Convention on Salvage, 1989; and 4. the court ought to exercise its equitable jurisdiction to alter the usual order of priorities in its favour.
Decision: The mortgagee has priority.
Held: The costs of discharging the cargo and cleaning the ship form part of the plaintiff’s claim against the ship owner and are not to be equated with marshal’s expenses. The plaintiff was not a volunteer but was acting under compulsion of law. With respect to s. 139 of the Marine Liability Act, which grants a maritime lien to Canadian suppliers of goods or services to a foreign ship, the goods or services must be supplied at the request of the shipowner. They were not so supplied. There was no contract with the shipowner. With respect to the claim for a salvage maritime lien, the law of salvage requires that the services be voluntary, the adventure be in danger at sea and the salvage efforts be successful. The International Convention on Salvage, 1989 did not alter the law of salvage other than in relation to compensation for protection of the environment. The ship was not in danger once she arrived at the port and the plaintiff was not acting as a volunteer. Finally, with respect to the equitable ranking of priorities, the thread which ties recent cases on equitable ranking together is unjust enrichment. The mortgagee did not lull the plaintiff into doing something it would not have done in any event. The plaintiff acted not as a volunteer but as it was required to do by law. There is no reason to change the usual priorities.
Universal Sales Limited v. Edinburgh Assurance Co. Ltd., 2012 FC 418Précis: Underwriters were required to reimburse the assured for a settlement payment made in respect of an action for wreck removal costs.
The plaintiffs (the insureds) sought indemnity from the defendants (their insurers) for a settlement payment of $5 million made by them to the federal government related to the costs of raising the “Irving Whale”. The payment was made in settlement of a proceeding brought by the Crown for $42 million. The plaintiffs did not obtain the prior approval of their underwriters before making the settlement. The plaintiffs also claimed for sue and labour expenses of $3.6 million and defence costs of $1.8 million. The insurers denied coverage alleging the plaintiffs were not required to make the settlement payment and that there was no coverage under the policy.
Decision: Plaintiff awarded judgment, in part.
Held: With respect to the claim for sue and labour expenses, the trial Judge denied this claim on the basis that the expenses did not diminish or avert a loss under the policy. This was so because the estimated costs at the time the expenses were incurred were in excess of $21 million but the policy limit was only $5 million. Thus, the sue and labour expenses could not possibly have benefited the underwriter. With respect to the settlement payment, the trial Judge held that he was satisfied that the plaintiffs would have been held liable to the Crown in nuisance if the settlement payment had not been made. With respect to the claim for defence costs, the trial Judge was of the view that these should be apportioned between the plaintiffs and underwriters on the grounds that both benefited from these costs. He somewhat arbitrarily apportioned these defence costs 25% to underwriters and 75% to the plaintiffs.
Chameau Exploration Ltd. v. Nova Scotia (Attorney General), 2007 NSSC 386
This interesting case concerned attempts to explore what was believed to be the 1812 wreck of a Royal Navy sloop. The case came before the court as an application for judicial review of a decision of the Executive Director of the Nova Scotia Museum. The Director had declined to issue a research permit to explore the wreck under the Nova Scotia Special Places Protection Act. Such a permit was required to carry out any exploration or excavation. The decision to decline the permit was because of a letter received from the British High Commission claiming ownership and sovereign immunity over the wreck as a warship but the applicant was not given the opportunity to make submissions on the British claim. The Court held that this was a breach of procedural fairness and quashed the decision of the Director. The Court did not, however, order that the permit be granted or decide the merits of the British claim. (Note: It is interesting that no challenge seems to have been made to the constitutional validity or applicability of the Special Places Protection Act, a provincial statute. One would think it at least arguable that the provinces have no jurisdiction over wrecks and the exploration and salvage thereof.
Early Recovered Resources Inc. v. British Columbia, 2005 FC 995
The issue in this case was the constitutional validity or applicability of: first, Part 9 of the Forest Act of British Columbia and the associated Log Salvage Regulation passed pursuant thereto; and second, the Canada Shipping Act and the International Convention on Salvage (the “Salvage Convention”). Part 9 of the Forest Act and the Log Salvage Regulation regulate, inter alia, the recovery of logs adrift within a prescribed geographic area. The Plaintiff argued that the Forest Act and Log Salvage Regulation were invalid regulation by the province of “marine salvage”, a core element of exclusive federal jurisdiction over navigation and shipping. The Judge reviewed relevant authorities and held that the appropriate approach to the analysis was to employ a “pith and substance” analysis to determine: 1. whether the impugned provisions intrude on a federal head of power and to what extent; 2. If they do intrude, are they nevertheless part of a valid provincial legislative scheme; and, 3. If they are part of a valid provincial scheme, are they sufficiently integrated with that scheme. The Judge specifically rejected the suggestion that the appropriate analysis was to apply the “inter-jurisdictional immunity” test set out in Ordon v Grail,  3 SCR 437. He held that the “inter-jurisdictional immunity” doctrine need not be considered if the pith and substance of the impugned provision does not intrude into a power of the other government. He then reviewed the provisions of Part 9 of the Forest Act and the associated regulations and noted that Part 9 provided a framework for dealing with forestry resources that had become drift timber and needed to be recovered and salvaged to realize its value. He held that these provisions had nothing to do with navigation and shipping and that any connection with navigation and shipping was tenuous. He further held that Part 9 of the Forest Act and the regulations were an integral part of a valid resource management scheme and even if they intruded on the federal navigation and shipping power such intrusion was merely incidental and did not affect the constitutional validity of the legislation. The Judge then considered the constitutional validity of the Canada Shipping Act and the Salvage Convention insofar as they purported to regulate the recovery and sale of logs and the distribution of the proceeds of sale. He addressed the issue of whether logs were “property” within the meaning of the convention and held that they were. He then declared that the Canada Shipping Act and the Salvage Convention were invalid insofar as they purported to regulate the recovery and sale of logs and the distribution of the proceeds of sale. The reason given for this declaration was to remain consistent with his previous holding that the Forest Act was valid provincial legislation.
Brooks Aviation Inc. v. Boeing SB-17G, 2004 FC 710
This was an application by the Plaintiff for summary judgment in respect of a claim for salvage. The res was a B-17 aircraft that had crash landed on a lake in Labrador during the winter of 1947. The following year the aircraft sank during the spring thaw. The wreck was discovered by the Plaintiff in July 1998. The Plaintiff sought a declaration for the following relief: that the Federal Court had exclusive jurisdiction to determine the salvage claim; that the Plaintiff had a maritime lien; that the Plaintiff had possession of the res and that other parties are enjoined from interfering with the Plaintiff's salvage rights; and, that the Plaintiff was entitled to a full and liberal salvage award. On the question of jurisdiction the Court noted that the Federal Court had maritime jurisdiction and that the law of salvage was a traditional area of maritime law. The Court specifically considered whether section 449 of the Canada Shipping Act limits the law of salvage to aircraft on or over the seas, tidal waters or Great Lakes. The Court held, however, that this section did not limit the traditional maritime law which had been extended to aircraft. (Note: In reaching this conclusion the Court refused to follow a contrary decision Smith v Smith,  4 WWR 665.) The Court then turned to the salvage claims. It noted that a claim of salvage requires: that the res be in peril; that the salvor be a volunteer; and that the salvage be successful. The Court found that the res was in peril and that the Plaintiff was a volunteer but, as the aircraft had not yet been recovered, the salvage was not yet successful. Accordingly, the Court held that the Plaintiff did not yet have a salvage claim. However, the Court did indicate it was prepared to protect the Plaintiff's priority rights as finder of the res upon further application of the Plaintiff.
Early Recovered Resources Ltd. v. Gulf Log Salvage Co-operative Association et al., 2003 FCT 549
This was a motion to add two associations of forestry companies who were owners of logs as either interveners or defendants in the Plaintiff’s action for salvage in respect of 17 unidentified logs from the BC coast. In the original action, the Province had been named as a Defendant but had a limited interest to stumpage fees which had likely already been paid prior to salvage. After noting that the style of cause should have been in rem to name the 17 unidentified logs, the Prothonotary held that the owners of the salved property, who would be liable for the salvage claim, should be defendants as they should have notice and be afforded the chance to protect their position. The two associations had an interest in rem in the logs (although ownership was unidentified) and an interest in protecting the existing log recovery system. The motion was granted adding the associations as defendants.
Cox v. The "Trade Up", 1998 CanLII 7481
This was a reference to determine a salvage award. The Plaintiff successfully salvaged the Defendant vessel which had been stranded on rocks. The salvor had retained two other vessels to assist him in the salvage and paid the owners of those vessels what the court considered "overgenerous" amounts. The Court noted that salvage awards "are intended to award a person who comes to the aid of a vessel in distress, and to reward that person handsomely so as to encourage persons to render aid in the future. Salvage awards are not intended to provide a living for the maritime community of the area in which salvage takes place." The Court ultimately awarded the Plaintiff $15,000.00 being 1.5 times the actual and prospective out of pocket expenses of the Plaintiff.
General Accident Indemnity Company v. The "Panache IV",  2 FC 455
This case has a good discussion of salvage. The case involved a claim for a salvage award by the underwriter of the "Panache IV". The "Panache IV" had an insured value of $275,000.00 and sank in deep waters under suspicious circumstances. The underwriter, suspecting the vessel had been scuttled, undertook salvage efforts. After two failed attempts the underwriter was finally able to raise the vessel. The raising of the vessel provided crucial evidence that the vessel had, in fact, been scuttled. The salvage of the vessel cost the underwriter in excess of $307,000.00. The salved vessel was sold for slightly in excess of $30,000.00. The underwriters sought a salvage award out of the sale proceeds to defray some of the costs of the salvage. The mortgagee of the vessel, who was owed approximately $240,000.00, opposed the salvage award arguing that the underwriter was a party interested in the vessel and its services were not therefore rendered voluntarily such as to attract a salvage award. The Court, however, held that the underwriter was entitled to a salvage award and awarded the underwriter $12,000.00 plus additional expenses of $2,600.00.
Ontario v. Mar-Dive Corp., 1996 CanLII 8103
This very interesting case concerned a dispute over the ownership of and salvage rights to the S.S. "Atlantic", a double-sided wheeled paddle steamer that sank in 1852 on the Ontario side of Lake Erie. The competing claimants were the Crown in the Right of Ontario, Michael Fletcher, a diver who had found and marked the wreck in 1984, and various U.S. companies whose principals found the wreck in 1989. The U.S. companies removed various artifacts which they transported to California. They then commenced proceedings in California which resulted in a judgment granting them salvage rights and recognizing their "uncontested claim of title". The California District Court further issued an injunction against Fletcher who continued to dive on the wreck. The U.S. companies then sought to enforce this judgment in Ontario. The Ontario Court General Division, however, declined to do so. The Ontario Court held that the District Court of California did not have jurisdiction as there was no real and substantial connection with California. The Court further found that even if the California Court had jurisdiction the judgments were obtained by means of half-truths and artificiality and as such it would be against public policy to enforce them. The Court then went on to consider the claim of the Ontario Crown to ownership. The Court held that the "Atlantic" had been abandoned by her owners at the time of the sinking. It further held that the vessel became the property of the Crown either as owner of the lake bed in which the vessel had become embedded or pursuant to the Crown's Royal Prerogative which entitles it to all unclaimed wrecks.