KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 27 — Sunken World War II shipwrecks are being plundered by local salvage firms in cahoots with an international syndicate.
According to The Star newspaper, the scavengers are reportedly looking for low-background metals, uncontaminated by radiation released from nuclear weapons, that are sought after for use in sensitive medical and scientific equipment.
Evidence of such activities surfaced at an Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology conference in Australia recently, which revealed that 48 naval shipwrecks across Southeast Asia, mainly around Malaysia and Indonesia, were plundered by the syndicate.
Quoting an anonymous source, the report said that the syndicate uses a grab dredger or crane barge to “fish” for parts of the wreckage from the seabed.
The illegal salvage operations were believed to have plundered 19 wrecks in Malaysia, mainly ships sunk during World War II.
“They operate for a few hours each day and sail back out to international waters, where the authorities have no power to search or detain ships,” a source was quoted as saying.
The person added that they return to the salvage work when the coast is clear as the syndicate has become adept at avoiding maritime authorities.
An unnamed Marine Department spokesman told the local paper that the department is aware of the illegal activities and has stepped up surveillance around shipwrecks in Malaysian waters.
“We are working closely with the Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency to stop this illegal activity,” the local daily quoted the spokesman, adding that authorities are powerless when the culprits flee into international waters.
Due to lucrative payouts for low-background steel in China, the illegal operation has high demand and the hunt has intensified in the last two years.
“The metal is highly sought in China where it is used to make top-grade, sensitive medical and scientific equipment,” the source was quoted
The report said the local arm of the syndicate was funded by Chinese counterparts, hiring and providing local salvage companies with the means and manpower needed for the task.
The anonymous source told the local daily that while the vessels, dredges and barges may be registered to different owners, all were said to be linked to one China-based company.