Gulf Of Mexico Archaeological Information

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The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to issue a permit for geological explorations (e.g., exploration wells) only if the Secretary determines, in accordance with regulations issued by the Secretary (cited below), that such explorations will not disturb any site, structure, or object of historical or archaeological significance (43 U.S.C. §1340(g)). The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA), as amended (54 U.S.C. §304101), and other applicable laws and regulations, required requires the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) to give full consideration in planning the preservation of historic properties not under the jurisdiction or control of the agency but potentially affected by agency actions, and that the agency’s procedures for compliance with section 306108 (previously Section 106 ) are consistent with regulations promulgated by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (Council) ensure that archaeological resources on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) are not damaged or destroyed by oil, gas, and sulphur operations. This section requires that the head of any Federal agency having direct or indirect jurisdiction over a proposed Federal or federally-assisted undertaking or having authority to license any undertaking shall take into account the effect of the undertaking on any historic property and afford the council a reasonable opportunity to comment. A part of this process, as outlined in 36 CFR 800.4, the agency shall determine the area of potential effects of the undertaking and shall take the steps necessary to identify historic properties within the area of potential effects. Archaeological resources, which are included in the definition of historic properties, are defined as any material remains of human life or activities that are at least 50 years of age and that are of archaeological interest (see 30 CFR 550.105 and, 30 CFR 250.105, and 36 CFR 800.16(l)(1)).

Archaeological sites on the OCS are most likely to be either historic shipwrecks or pre-contact Native American sites dating from the time at the end of the last Ice Age (~20,000 – 22,000 years ago), when sea levels were about 427 feet (130 meters) lower than they are today. Based on our current understanding of the archaeological and geological evidence, BOEM has adjusted, over time, our understanding of when and where people may have lived on the OCS when it was a terrestrial landform.  Based on this new evidence, consultations with Native American Tribes, advances in remote sensing technology, and new coring methodologies to locate submerged ancient landforms, BOEM has updated the depth within the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) where remote sensing surveys for ancient landforms are required (from the previous depth of 60 m (200 ft) to 130 m (427 ft)). In addition, historic shipwrecks dating from as early as the 16th century C.E. and as recent as World War II have been discovered, largely through industry surveys, in all parts and in all water depths of the Gulf of Mexico. In order to comply with Section 106 of the NHPA, BOEM and BSEE require that the oil and gas, marine minerals, and renewable energy industries conduct surveys of the seafloor before they undertake any bottom disturbing activities in areas where the Regional Director has a reason to believe archaeological sites may exist. These instruments usually include a magnetometer, which detects ferrous metals, a sidescan sonar, which creates a picture of the seafloor using reflected sound waves, and a sub-bottom profiler, which detects variations in the sediment underlying the seafloor. These data collected are reviewed by archaeologists, who write reports on their findings for submittal to BOEM or BSEE, as appropriate.

As of March 2011, BOEM may require an assessment of the impacts of offshore oil and gas operations on a host of natural, biological, and cultural resources to ensure their protection. Bottom-disturbing operations such as well placement, anchoring, and pipelay activities can lead to damage to any resources that reside on the seabed, particularly archaeological resources such as historic shipwrecks. High-resolution surveys provide an effective tool analysts use to identify and help protect archaeological resources; however, such survey coverage was not always required and is often not available for all areas of the Gulf of Mexico. The lack of coverage has become especially problematic in deeper water where oil and gas activities are increasing and more shipwrecks are being identified.

To ensure adequate survey coverage is available for analyst review and to help with environmental reviews conducted for the agency's National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance, Pre-Seabed Disturbance Survey Mitigation was developed and may be imposed, as required, on industry activities. On occasion, the Gulf of Mexico Region needs more information about a particular remote-sensing target to determine if it is a significant archaeological site and will require the oil and gas industry to conduct an investigation by underwater archaeologists. These investigations could involve the use of divers or remote operated vehicles (ROVs) and require that specific methodological guidelines are followed (see links below).

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