Ownership of Sir John Franklin's shipwrecked vessels — which were recently discovered in the Canadian Arctic after years of searching — is being transferred from Britain to Canada.

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror wrecked after an 1845 voyage attempting to chart the Northwest Passage.

Britain's defence ministry announced Monday that it will retain a small sample of artifacts, but transfer ownership of the wrecks to Parks Canada over the coming weeks.

"This is extraordinarily important," said Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, "We're very pleased this is happening today."

Under international law, warships remain the property of the country they sailed under. Before they disappeared, the Erebus and Terror were commissioned ships in the Royal Navy.

Franklin and 128 men were trying to find the passage. All of them died, making the voyage the worst tragedy in the history of Arctic exploration.

Clearing kelp off HMS Erebus

Parks Canada underwater archeologist Charles Dagneau cuts kelp near the opening from an illuminator on the surface of the upper deck of HMS Erebus. The ownership of Erebus, along with HMS Terror will be transferred to Canada. (Parks Canada)

After years of searching, the wreck of HMS Erebus was found in 2014. The wreck of HMS Terror was located two years later.

Parks Canada archeologists have explored the sites and Parks Canada is preparing a major excavation of the Erebus next summer.

Conserved for 'future generations'

In August, Inuit guardians hired by Parks Canada began watching over the wrecks at the historic site near Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, the community closest to the wrecks. 

"It's an important part of our history but it's also an important part of the story with Inuit," McKenna said.

"Inuit lived in the Arctic long before the Franklin ships ever came there. The ships were lost, the Inuit were able to survive and thrive," she said.

Michael Fallon, the U.K.'s defence secretary, says the arrangement "will ensure that these wrecks and artifacts are conserved for future generations."

The U.K. government proposes to update a memorandum of understanding signed in 1997 that said Britain owned everything related to the wrecks while Canada would have custody and control of them.

McKenna Climate UK 20171012

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says the federal government is committed to joint ownership of the Franklin wrecks and artifacts with Inuit communities. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A majority of the artifacts are expected to come to Canada, though bodies or any gold bullion recovered would go back to Britain, McKenna said. 

On Monday, McKenna said the government is committed to joint-ownership of the Franklin wrecks and their artifacts with the Inuit.

Parks Canada is working with the Government of Nunavut, the Kitikmeot Inuit Association and the Franklin Advisory Committee on the protection of the wreck sites and artifacts, she said.  

"It's important Canada has joint ownership with Inuit who played a very important role in finding these wrecks," she said. "It's important to our relationship and reconciliation."  

With files from the Canadian Press and The Associated Press