More than a century after the RMS Titanic sank to the bottom of the sea — and nearly a quarter-century after its memory was dredged up for a Hollywood blockbuster — the U.S. and U.K. have implemented a formal agreement on how to safeguard and manage the ill-fated steamship's remains.
British Maritime Minister Nusrat Ghani confirmed the news Tuesday during a visit to Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the ship was built before it set off from the English port city of Southampton in 1912.
Within days, the ship's maiden voyage would end on the underwater spur of an iceberg, sending all but 706 of its 2,223 passengers to a cold and watery grave, according to a U.S. Senate report published the following month.
"This momentous agreement with the United States to preserve the wreck means it will be treated with the sensitivity and respect owed to the final resting place of more than 1,500 lives," Ghani said in remarks released Tuesday by the Maritime Ministry.
Ghani's comments cap a long and winding journey for the deal, which representatives from the U.K., the U.S., Canada and France officially agreed to as part of a 2003 treaty. The Agreement Concerning the Shipwrecked Vessel RMS Titanic sought to sort out and regulate public access, artifact conservation and salvage rights within 1 kilometer of the wreck site, situated hundreds of miles off the coast of Canada in the North Atlantic.
But since the countries negotiated the treaty, the document has largely languished. It requires the ratification of at least two of the four countries to enter into force, and while the U.K. quickly ratified the agreement, both Canada and France have yet to do so. The formal approval of the U.S. government looked long in doubt, as well.
But that changed last November, when the State Department announced that it had officially registered its acceptance.
"The Agreement reinforces the United States' collaborative efforts with the United Kingdom and others to preserve the wreck site as an international maritime memorial to the men, women, and children who perished aboard the ship," the department explained at the time. "The RMS Titanic is of major national and international historical, cultural, and scientific significance and merits appropriate protection."
Previously, the site of the wreck, discovered in 1985, was primarily protected by UNESCO regulations. At a 2001 convention, the U.N. cultural organization set out a series of ground rules for sites deemed to be part of the world's underwater cultural heritage, such as the Titanic wreck. The agreement calls for preserving these remains in their original position and banning commercial exploitation, among other stipulations.
The deal that recently came into force with U.S. and U.K. approval expands on those rules, laying out specific guidelines on how to grant and obtain licenses to explore the ship's remains, and how to punish those who violate them.
Now that the agreement is taking effect, British officials are celebrating the move as a step forward in the responsible preservation of the iconic wreckage.
"The U.K.," Ghani said Tuesday, "will now work closely with other North Atlantic States to bring even more protection to the wreck of the Titanic."