Development is important for South Australia’s economy and long-term growth. However it is important that development is progressed in a way that minimises the adverse impacts on our state’s heritage assets.

While the legal focus of protection of our historic shipwrecks is contained within the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1981/Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018, regulations governing development are contained with Schedule 8 of the Development Regulations 2008.

There are more than 800 recorded shipwrecks in SA, and about 50% have been declared as 'historic shipwrecks'. SA also has at least 32 recorded aircraft wrecks.

If a proposed development is within the prescribed distance of an historic shipwreck or aircraft, then the development application must be referred to DEW for assessment of potential impacts. In all cases, the onus is on the developer to ensure that there is no impact to historic shipwrecks or aircraft, except in accordance with a permit issued under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1981/Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018.

Development near 'located' shipwreck sites

The exact locations of only about 25% of the 800 recorded shipwrecks in South Australia have been confirmed.

For 'located' shipwrecks or aircraft sites, avoiding impact is relatively easy. However, there is often a 'debris field' surrounding the wreck. Articles within this debris field are considered to be historic relics and have the same protection as the wreck itself.

Development in the vicinity of underwater cultural heritage must not impact any articles associated with the site without a permit.

Developments within 150 metres of a located shipwreck or aircraft site will automatically be referred to DEW for assessment.

Development near 'unlocated' shipwreck sites

Shipwrecks break down and get buried over time, often leaving no visible signs of the wreck on the surface of the sea or river bed. In these instances where only the general area or region that a shipwreck is located is known, the wreck is referred to as 'unlocated'.

Where a development is located in the general vicinity of registered 'unlocated' underwater cultural heritage, the onus is on the developer to show there were will be no impact as a result of the development. Where potential impacts are unknown, the developer is encouraged to engage a suitably qualified maritime archaeologist to prepare an assessment. This may involve a desktop assessment and/or may extend to conducting an underwater archaeological survey of the development's footprint.

Developments within 500 metres of an 'unlocated' shipwreck or aircraft site will automatically be referred to DEW for assessment. Where development impacts to an historic shipwreck cannot be avoided, a permit will be required from DEW.

Not just underwater...

It is important for developers and planners to remember that shipwrecks and relics are not just confined to underwater environments. Coastal processes can change the extent of coastlines, and shipwrecks that were once underwater or in the intertidal zone can sometimes be found high and dry in the coastal dunes. They may also be buried under reclaimed land.

Any activities that involve contact with the seabed, or operations in close proximity to the seabed, have the potential to damage, destroy or interfere with historic shipwrecks. It is strongly recommended that risk mitigation strategies should be undertaken to avoid inadvertently committing an offence under either state or Commonwealth underwater cultural heritage laws.

If impacts to an historic shipwreck on land cannot be avoided then a permit under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1981 will be required.

Discovery of shipwrecks or relics during a development

If you discover a previously unknown shipwreck, either as part of a pre-development survey or during the development itself, you must notify DEW of the discovery.

Further information and notification forms can be found here. If the discovery is made during the development and the development plan cannot be altered to avoid the shipwreck or relic, then a permit will be required.

How do I know if there is a historic shipwreck or relic near my development?

You can see if your development is within the vicinity of an historic shipwreck by checking the online mapping tool Naturemaps

Zoom to your development area and:
→ Click on ‘Switch to Layer View’.
→ Select ‘Heritage and Tourism’ and expand it by clicking on the ‘+’ icon.
→ Select ‘State’ and then expand it.
→ Select ‘Shipwrecks’ and the locations registered for historic shipwrecks will appear on the map.

You can also use the ‘measure’ tool to determine if the shipwreck is within 500 metres of your development. If so, then the planning authority must refer the development to the department for assessment. DEW may require further information to support the application.

You can also download an easy guide on interpreting NatureMaps shipwreck data here. The guide will also explain how to tell whether the shipwreck is protected (i.e. an historic shipwreck) or whether its exact location is known.

What you should do first...

Before proceeding with a development application, DEW recommends that you contact Heritage South Australia on +61 8 8124 4933 or email DEWheritage@sa.gov.au to discuss your development. DEW is the only authority that holds a complete register of shipwrecks in SA.