Feds Plan to Protect Ghost Ships

(CN) – If approved, marine sanctuaries proposed in Wisconsin and Maryland to protect historic shipwrecks and maritime battlegrounds would be the first sanctuaries added since 2000, agency says. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is moving forward with an initiative President Obama announced in October 2015 at the “Our Ocean” conference in Chile, to create the sanctuaries in the tidal waters of Maryland and in Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan.

The Mallows Bay sanctuary proposed in Maryland encompasses 52 square miles of the Potomac River near Charles County. The area contains more than 100 known shipwrecks from the “Ghost Fleet” built from 1917 to 1919 for World War I that were wooden steamships from over 40 shipyards in 17 states constructed as part of wartime preparation efforts. Other archaeological artifacts include roughly 200 shipwrecks dating to the Civil War era, battlegrounds from both the Revolutionary and Civil wars, and Native American sites dating back 1200 years.

The area was nominated by a coalition of community groups and endorsed by organizations and individuals “at local, state, regional, and national levels including elected officials, businesses, Native American, environmental, recreation, conservation, fishing, tourism, museums, historical societies, and education groups” the action noted.

In Wisconsin, NOAA has proposed 1,075 square miles of Lake Michigan near Manitowoc, Sheboygan and Ozaukee counties that contains 37 known shipwrecks going back to the early to mid 1800s, 18 of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Eighty or more suspected shipwrecks await discovery. The sanctuary would include many historic maritime features such as cribs, docks and piers, according to the agency.

Governor Scott Walker, on behalf of the state of Wisconsin, along with several cities and counties, nominated the area for inclusion as a national marine sanctuary in 2014. The information used in the nomination came mainly from a 2008 report by the Wisconsin Historical Society, funded by the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program.

Sanctuary designation protects rare sites from human-caused damage such as looting, anchoring, and disturbance of sites, and also provides for management plans to protect against environmental issues such as winds, storms and ice, as well as invasive marine species.

National marine sanctuaries also provide research opportunities, increase educational opportunities, and help with preservation of archeological resources and enhancement of public uses such as tourism and recreation. Even in remote locations, marine sanctuaries can generate thousands of local jobs and millions in regional income, the agency said.

NOAA’s Office of Marine Sanctuaries oversees a system of 14 protected marine regions. Seven new nominations for marine sanctuaries have been received since the agency opened the nomination process last year.

“The proposed sanctuaries will offer communities for the first time in nearly 20 years the opportunity to protect and interpret special areas, along with the potential to promote tourism, education initiatives and economic development,” John Armor, director of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, said. “Further, in the spirit of regional cooperation, the proposed sites reflect broad community support from a variety of stakeholders and interested parties. We look forward to hearing from the public.”

The current proposals include alternative options for the boundaries of the sanctuaries, and the agency is also asking for input as to official sanctuary names. Draft Environmental Impact Statements, Draft Management Plans and Socieoeconomic Reports are available.

The agency has scheduled two public meetings regarding the Mallows Bay proposal in Maryland, and four public meetings regarding the Lake Michigan proposal in Wisconsin. Comments on the proposals are due March 31.

Built in 1843 the schooner, Home, is one of the oldest shipwrecks discovered in Wisconsin. Credit: Tamara Thomsen, Wisconsin Historical Society