Regulations meant to protect undersea shipwrecks from careless salvaging and destruction have touched off protest from Maryland divers who say the rules could hamper their sport.

The new regulations, which stem from a 1987 federal act, will limit the number of artifacts divers may remove from wrecks in Maryland waters that are 100 years old or more or are deemed of historical significance. For the first time, divers also would have to report any items they retrieve from such wrecks, a rule meant to help keep track of items of historical and scientific significance.

Most of the "treasures" on Maryland's undersea wrecks are port holes, bottles, and ship parts. Under the regulations, divers would be able to retrieve up to five artifacts that cumulatively weigh less than 25 pounds from designated wrecks, and would have to inform the Maryland Historical Trust of their findings within 30 days. Divers who want to conduct more extensive excavations would have to apply for special permits at a cost of up to $2,000. Those who violate regulations could face up to one year in prison and a $10,000 fine.

"Underwater archaeology has a lot of stringent control on the collection of artifacts because we want to know if this candlestick relates to other artifacts in the area," said Bruce Thompson, a state underwater archaeologist. "We need to know exactly where it was found, where this piece of wood was found, where this cannonball was found. We want to protect anything that has scientific information."

Problems occur, Thompson said, when salvage groups want to sell artifacts they recover. "The regulations are designed to protect the information," he said.

But some divers see things differently. "I think {the regulations} are just terrible," said Jim Leizear, a diving instructor with Diver's Den in Baltimore. He is concerned about the state taking possession of the wrecks and deciding who will be allowed to explore them. "I'm worried about . . . not being able to see the beauty" of the ocean.

Such fears are unfounded, Thompson said. "A diver can dive on just about any wreck he chooses. Whether or not he takes artifacts off these {historic} wrecks -- that's where the state has to set up its regulations," he said.

The Maryland Maritime Archaeology Program was set up 2 1/2 years ago within the Maryland Historical Trust to comply with the federal Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, which authorizes states to take steps to protect historic shipwrecks.

One of the goals of the program is to identify and survey all of the wrecks in Maryland waters, which include parts of the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean to three miles out. Thompson estimates that there are up to 2,000 wrecks in Maryland, but until they are all surveyed, it cannot be determined how many will be declared historic sites.

One of the major wrecks in Maryland waters is the Herbert T. Maxwell off Kent Island. The Maxwell, a schooner that went down in 1917, is unusual because most of the hull is intact, Thompson said.

"Most shipwrecks have less than 20 percent of their hull remaining. She has her decks. She has her gunwales -- rails that surround the sides of the ship. She has been quoted in several dive magazines as a good dive spot," Thompson said.

Other significant wrecks are the City of Annapolis, a steamer that went down in the Chesapeake Bay just across the Virginia line.

Since 1987, Maryland officials have been drafting new diving laws and regulations. They are now writing guidelines for divers that are likely to take effect by the end of the year.

After public hearings on the proposed guidelines, sport divers complained about the restrictions.

"There are so many stipulations that it's going to ruin the industry," said Steven Ganzermiller, a member of the Tentacles Dive team from Baltimore. "If you can't dive on wrecks, you are going to dilute the sales of dive gear."

There are about 4,000 licensed divers in the state.

Describing a possible violation, Ganzermiller said, "If you disturb the sediment, you are going to disturb the bottom and cause erosion . . . . No one is going to risk getting in trouble."

Other divers, such as Annapolis Scuba shop owner Bill Powell, support the idea of preserving historic wrecks but are concerned about when they will be identified.

"With the {lack of} visibility in the bay, you might think you're on one wreck, but it could be another that is 150 years old," Powell said. "Until the wrecks are identified it's going to be tough."

Because of the Shipwreck Act of 1987, many other states aredrawing up similar regulations. Several states, including South Carolina and Florida, are modeling theirs after Maryland's.