Archaeologists on Quebec’s North Shore are teaming up with provincial police and federal authorities to fight the looting of its underwater heritage sites.

Local authorities are hoping the new Heritage Preservation Agreement will curb the amount of artifacts that are stolen by treasure-hunting divers from hundreds of shipwrecks and other historic sites at the bottom of the St. Lawrence River.

Project coordinator Francois Guindon said divers are frequently finding new wrecks and it’s vital that they be protected from the often reckless acts of looters.  

“There are stories from well-informed people who know the looter scene and apparently some even go with dynamite or take a jack-hammer in order to free the items they’re after,” Guindon told CBC Radio's Quebec AM. “That gives you an idea of the breadth of the damage that can be done to the wrecks when looters come.”

Thanks to the work of a team of amateur underwater archaeologists working with Heritage Preservation Agreement committee, Guindon said the number of known wrecks in the area has already doubled since the spring.

With wrecks dating from as far back as the 17th Century, stolen artifacts can bring large profits on the black market.

Others pillage to add to their own private collections, which Guindon said are not always maintained with the appropriate standard of care that such rare and fragile objects require.

“When these kind of things get into the hands of private collectors, it’s really sad because these objects don’t only have a market or a private value, they also have an important value in terms of attracting tourists to see the collections in interpretation centres around the North Shore,” he said.

To counter this loss, the Sûrete du Québec’s nautical patrol is working in tandem with surveillance planes from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans equipped with hi-resolution photo and video cameras to monitor sensitive areas favoured by looters.

“With this kind of equipment they can see licence plates, people, even bubbles coming out of the water when people dive,” Guindon said.

The SQ is also mounting a public information campaign to let people know about the heritage that is at risk and the fact it is illegal to collect it for private purposes.