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The JNAPC was formed in 1988 from individuals and representatives of institutions who wished to raise awareness of Britain's underwater cultural heritage and to persuade government that underwater sites of historic importance should receive no less protection than those on land.

The JNAPC launched Heritage at Sea in May 1989, which put forward proposals for the better protection of archaeological sites underwater. Recommendations covered improved legislation and better reporting of finds, a proposed inventory of underwater sites, the waiving of fees by the Receiver of Wreck, the encouragement of seabed operators to undertake pre-disturbance surveys, greater responsibility by the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for their historic wrecks, proper management by government agencies of underwater sites, and the education and the training of sports divers to respect and conserve the underwater historic environment.

Government responded to Heritage at Sea in its White Paper This Common Inheritance in December 1990 in which it was announced that the Receiver's fees would be waived, the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England would be funded to prepare a Maritime Record of sites, and funding would be made available for the Nautical Archaeology Society to employ a full time training officer to develop its training programmes. Most importantly the responsibility for the administration of the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act was also transferred from the Department of Transport, where it sat rather uncomfortably, to the then heritage ministry, the Department of the Environment. Subsequently responsibility passed to the Department of National Heritage, which has since become the Department for Culture Media and Sport.

The aim of the JNAPC has been to raise the profile of nautical archaeology in both government and diving circles and to present a consensus upon which government and other organisations can act. Heritage at Sea was followed up by Still at Sea in May 1993 which drew attention to outstanding issues, the Code of Practice for Seabed Developers was launched in January 1995, and an archaeological leaflet for divers, Underwater Finds - What to Do, was published in January 1998 in collaboration with the Sports Diving Associations BSAC, PADI and SAA. The more detailed explanatory brochure, Underwater Finds - Guidance for Divers, followed in May 2000 and Wreck Diving - Don't Get Scuttled, an educational brochure for divers, was published in October 2000.

The JNAPC continues its campaign for the education of all sea users about the importance of our nautical heritage. The JNAPC will be seeking better funding for nautical archaeology and improved legislation, a subject on which it has published initial proposals for change in Heritage Law at Sea in June 2000 and An Interim Report on the Valletta Convention & Heritage Law at Sea in 2003. The latter made detailed recommendations for legal and administrative changes to improve protection of the UK's underwater cultural heritage.

The JNAPC has played a major role in English Heritage's review of marine archaeological legislation and in DCMS's consultation exercise Protecting our Marine Historic Environment: Making the System Work Better, and was represented on the DCMS Salvage Working Group reviewing potential requirements for new legislation. The JNAPC has also been working towards the ratification of the UNESCO Convention with the preparation of the Burlington House Declaration, which was presented to Government in 2006.