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Dec 20 07 11:35 AM
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Dec 20 07 3:32 PM
A judge has fined a famous treasure-hunting family nearly $590,000 for ruining sea grass off the Florida Keys while looking for shipwrecks and has ordered
them to hand over cannonballs, an anchor and other artifacts from a sunken Spanish galleon.
The ruling against Mel Fisher's company, Salvors Inc., and his son Kane involved the first violation of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to
go to trial. The sanctuary was created in 1990 to protect 2,800 nautical square miles of water heavily used by fishermen and boaters.
Kane Fisher and the company were found responsible in Federal District Court here on Wednesday for destroying more than an acre of protected sea grass on
the ocean floor in 1992. They had been searching for millions of dollars in treasure from Spanish galleons that sank during a hurricane in 1733.
Mel Fisher, who is 74 and has been undergoing chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, was dismissed as a defendant in the case in May because of his
poor health, but his company and his son remained liable.
Judge Edward B. Davis ruled that Salvors Inc. and Kane Fisher must pay $589,331 to restore the sea grass.
They also have to turn over to the Federal Government an iron anchor, silver forks and plates, silver coins, bronze medallions, cannonballs and other
artifacts found in the 1992 search.
The Fisher family has estimated that the ruling will cost Salvors Inc. $1.8 million, including the fine, legal fees and the value of the treasure, said
Delores Fisher, wife of Mel Fisher.
Kane Fisher was using an innovation called mailboxes, elbow-shaped metal tubes that use the ship's propellers to blow water onto treasure sites as a
way to uncover objects buried under the sand.
The judge found that his operations were responsible for hundreds of ''blow holes'' in the grass averaging 20 to 30 feet wide and 3 to 5
The sea grass, which serves as an important nursery for a variety of fish, has not recovered much since then, according to George Schmahl, the
sanctuary's manager in the Lower Keys.
The Fishers argued that many other companies were searching in the area at the time and that the sea grass suffered no permanent damage.
Mel Fisher said such rulings would be the death of the business. ''This will make it very difficult to treasure hunt in the sanctuary,''
Mr. Fisher said. ''This just put them all out of business.''
The Fishers struck it rich in 1985 when Kane Fisher found the bulk of the treasure of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a Spanish galleon loaded with an
estimated $400 million in gold, silver and gems that went down in 1622 off Key West.
The Fishers' find helped legitimize a business that has grown very popular in Florida, with an estimated 2,000 Colonial-era shipwrecks hidden beneath
After the ruling, Mel Fisher, a former Indiana chicken farmer who struggled through decades of hard times treasure hunting in the Keys, seemed wistful for
the early days when there were no regulations or boundaries.
''Nobody was interested in it,'' Mr. Fisher said, ''until I found about five million dollars' worth of gold
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