Two divers have been ordered to pay a total of £63,500 in fines and costs for salvaging items on an "industrial scale" from shipwrecks including First World War submarines, according to the Marine and Coastguard Agency (MCA).
David Knight and Edward Huzzey, both from Sandgate, Kent, had previously pleaded guilty to 19 offences between them, contrary to section 236 and section 237 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, in relation to the items taken which were worth more than £250,000. Knight was fined £7,000 and Huzzey £6,500 at Southampton Magistrates' Court and they were each ordered to pay £25,000 in costs in what the MCA is calling a "landmark case".
An MCA spokesman said: "Items were taken from shipwrecks off the Kent coast, with the first known objects removed in 2001.
"The shipwrecks targeted included German submarines from the First World War and an unknown 200-year-old wreck carrying English East India Company cargo.
"The items included eight bronze cannons, three propellers from German submarines, lead and tin ingots, along with various other artefacts. It's thought the combined value of the items is more than £250,000.
"It's believed that six of the cannons had been sold on, but in the last fortnight they have been returned to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA)."
District Judge Anthony Calloway, said: "The scale of the operation has to be considered to have been on an industrial scale: the resources employed were valuable and substantial, using good quality lifting equipment and explosives.
"Huzzey and Knight are friends and clearly operated in close co-operation to actively scavenge for material from the wrecks they explored."
Alison Kentuck, the MCA's receiver of wreck, said: "It is not a case of 'finders keepers'. Our message is clear: all wreck material found within or brought within UK territorial waters must be reported to the receiver of wreck.
"Finders of wreck have 28 days to declare their finds to the Receiver. This case demonstrates what could happen to you if you don't. By reporting wreck material you are giving the rightful owner the opportunity to have their property returned and you may be adding important information to the historic record.
"Legitimate finders are likely to be entitled to a salvage award, but those who don't declare items are breaking the law and could find themselves, just like with this case, facing hefty fines."
English Heritage has provided expert advice in relation to uncontrolled salvage on submerged archaeological remains and on the handling of the seized artefacts.
Mark Harrison, English Heritage's national policing and crime adviser, said: "The sentence today sets an important precedent in the fight against uncontrolled salvage by a small criminal minority who have no appreciation for our national maritime heritage.
"Sophisticated techniques and equipment were used by these men to remove valuable artefacts from the seabed."
Mark Dunkley, English Heritage's maritime archaeologist said: "English Heritage takes very seriously all cases of heritage crime which robs us of our shared history. However, we recognise that the majority of divers do act responsibly and comply with the laws and regulations relating to historic wreck sites and salvage."