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Treasure Hunter Mel Fisher Dies

Mel Fisher, the treasure hunter who found his fortune in the underwater treasures left behind by unlucky Spanish sea captains of the 1600s and 1700s, died Saturday after a long battle with cancer. He was 76.

Fisher was treated for lymphoma with months of chemotherapy, and died at his home in Key West, said Dr. Madeleine Burnside, executive director of the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society Treasure Museum in Key West.

"He died at home in Key West at 7:30 this evening. It was extremely peaceful," she said.

Father Tony Mullane of St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church on Big Pine Key, who said he administered last rites to Fisher more than three weeks ago, said family members called him Saturday evening and told him the treasure hunter had died.

The Fisher family struck it rich in 1985, when son Kane found the mother lode of the treasure of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a Spanish galleon loaded with an estimated $400 million in gold, silver and gems that went down in 1622 off Key West.

Fisher looked for treasure for 16 years before he found the first traces of the Atocha site in 1971. Burnside said it turned out the scatter field from the wreck stretched 11 miles long, and was less than 100 feet wide.

Fisher had begun searching for the galleon in 1969. In the process, he lost a son and daughter-in-law, when the boat they were on capsized in 1975.

His mantra each and every day during the years-long search for the Atocha: "Today's the day."

Fisher sold his chicken farming business in 1953 to open a dive shop in California. He then moved to Florida to carry out the dream planted in his memory when he read "Treasure Island" as a child.

Always short on capital, he and his family lived for years in a rundown Key West houseboat prone to sinking. He took out loans from across the state to pay expenses. His staff and lawyers went unpaid for months.

With fortune, though, came controversy.

Fisher a man who once dived deep into the ocean and wrestled an 80-pound jewfish to the surface with his bare hands ran afoul of environmental regulations and battled government efforts to establish an underwater sanctuary off the Florida Keys.

Last year, a judge penalized Fisher's company, Salvors Inc., and his son Kane $589,331 and ordered them to hand over cannon balls, an anchor and other booty from a sunken Spanish galleon for ruining more than an acre of protected sea grass off the Florida Keys while looking for shipwrecks in 1992.

The ruling was the first violation of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to go to trial. The sanctuary was created in 1990 to protect 2,800 nautical square miles of water heavily used by anglers and boaters.

In April, the Monroe County State Attorney's Office and Florida Department of Law Enforcement swept into Fisher's shop and seized 25 antique gold coins from the display cases.

The shop, in the same uilding as the independently run Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, offers salvaged emeralds, silver pieces and gold coins that can sell for $15,000 or more apiece. The coins were being offered as salvaged pieces from the wreck of a Spanish fleet that sank off the Florida Keys in a 1733 hurricane. Coin experts said they were fakes.

Fisher always denied the allegations.

"I would have no interest at all in fakes," Fisher said in May. "I find so many real ones."

In 1982, Fisher won a seven-year battle against the state's attempt to seize part of any loot to be recovered from the Atocha. Florida maintained that wrecks discovered within Florida's three-mile territorial waters belong to the state.

A federal judge agreed with Fisher, though, marking the first time a federal court has ruled that federal admiralty law supersedes state salvage law for wrecks in state territorial waters.

Under a deal then reached with Florida, the state would pay the salvors 75 percent of the recovered treasure, and keep 25 percent.

That then became state law, and is still in effect.

Fisher always remained a favorite with the Key West locals. In July he attended a day of Mel Fisher Appreciation Day parties on the 13th anniversary of the Atocha find. He was named four times as "King" of the Conch Republic the name longtime residents have given to the Florida Keys. The title comes with a crown and scepter.

He is survived by his wife Dolores Fisher; sons Kim, Terry, Kane, and daughter Taffi Fisher-Abt.

Burnside said she did not know immediately of the family's funeral plans.

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