Ushering in a New Era of National Marine Sanctuaries

By Elizabeth Weinberg

A group of people pose next to a trail sign
NOAA staff and partners gather at the sanctuary’s designation ceremony. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

For nearly 20 years, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Lake Huron has been the youngest national marine sanctuary in the United States. In 2019, that changed, as NOAA designated the first new national marine sanctuary in two decades: Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary.

The new sanctuary is located about 40 miles south of Washington, D.C., in the tidal Potomac River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. It protects the remnants of more than 100 World War I-era wooden steamships, as well as other historically-significant maritime heritage resources. The sanctuary will be co-managed with the state of Maryland and Charles County, Maryland.

“This is a historic moment for the National Marine Sanctuary System,” says John Armor, director of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary will allow us to preserve and interpret an important moment in our nation’s history, and also support the communities to which this special place means so much, socially and economically.”

The Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary designation is the first in a wave of new sanctuaries proposed under the revamped Sanctuary Nomination Process. Two proposed sanctuaries are currently in the designation process, Wisconsin-Lake Michigan and Lake Ontario, and sites in Alaska, Lake Erie, and California have also been nominated.

Sanctuaries for the People

Two native Americans in traditional headresses
Mario Harley, vice chair of the Piscataway Conoy Tribal Council, performs a blessing at the sanctuary designation. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

In 2014, NOAA launched a brand new Sanctuary Nomination Process. The process starts with communities: each nomination is created by a group of people who care passionately about protecting an area of our nation’s marine or Great Lakes waters. State and local agencies, Indigenous tribes, conservation nonprofits, educators, scientists, and more may collaborate to propose their local waterway for protection as a national marine sanctuary. NOAA then reviews the nomination to see if establishing a sanctuary would help protect significant natural and cultural resources. If so, the nomination is considered for potential designation.

Mallows Bay-Potomac River was one of the very first areas to be put forward. Just months after NOAA announced the Sanctuary Nomination Process, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley submitted a nomination for a 14-square-mile area in the tidal Potomac River to be considered as a national marine sanctuary. The nomination was supported by a coalition of nearly 100 business, education, Native American, conservation, historical, research, and recreational organizations. The Maryland congressional delegation also was supportive.

Over five years, the proposal underwent significant public input, including two rounds of public meetings with local communities and comment periods on the proposed designation documents.

In addition to protecting historically-significant artifacts and sites, Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary will serve as an important site for education and research. It will also provide opportunities for tourism and economic development. The area is popular with recreational kayakers and anglers. Natural resources will continue to be managed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.

“Designating this section of the Potomac River as a national marine ‘shipwreck’ sanctuary offers exciting opportunities for citizens in the local community, our region and far beyond – citizens from all walks of life who joined together to support this sanctuary,” says Charlie Stek, the community lead for the sanctuary nomination. “It will enhance recreational fishing, boating, and tourism in Maryland and Virginia. It will help to educate the public about our nation’s rich cultural and maritime history. And it will promote conservation and research in our continuing efforts to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River.”

Tides of History

The shipwrecks of Mallows Bay serve as habitat for animals like ospreys
The shipwrecks of Mallows Bay serve as habitat for animals like ospreys. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

Many of the new sanctuary nominations are for areas containing significant maritime heritage resources like shipwrecks. “These places offer us opportunities to reflect on the past in the context of the present,” says Joe Hoyt, National Maritime Heritage Program coordinator for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “Maritime heritage sites are not only places of learning, but also special places to honor the past, recognize achievements, and remember sacrifices. These places connect us to people and our waterways in ways that are profound and lasting.”

In addition to the Ghost Fleet, the sanctuary protects archaeological and cultural resources spanning centuries. Evidence of Native American habitation of the area dates back 12,000 years; Mallows Bay and the surrounding area is in the territory of the Piscataway Conoy Confederacy, Piscataway Indian Nation, and Patawomeck Indian Tribe. The area also contains artifacts from the Revolutionary, Civil, and both World Wars, as well as successive regimes of Potomac fishing industries.

“Designating the Ghost Fleet in Mallows Bay – the Chesapeake Bay’s first national marine sanctuary – is a fitting tribute to a unique cultural and natural resource that provides a tangible link to important chapters in U.S. history,” says Katherine Malone-France, interim chief preservation officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “We commend NOAA for taking this action to promote a historic place that conveys the rise of American industrialism, ingenuity, and a citizen war effort that heralded the emergence of our country as a world power. This designation will ensure that more Americans are able to experience this special place.”

Community Hubs

soldiers carry flags
The AEGIS Training and Readiness Center Ceremonial Guard presents the colors at the sanctuary designation. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

National marine sanctuaries proposed under the Sanctuary Nomination Process start with people, and once they’re designated, they continue to play a key role for communities.

Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary provides hands-on education experiences: since 2014, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation awarded Ocean Guardian funds to two public schools in Charles County, Maryland. These grants have enabled in-school and outdoor education and stewardship for hundreds of students. People of all ages have also gotten to know Mallows Bay through NOAA-led trash cleanup events.

The sanctuary nomination has also catalyzed efforts to help the public better understand the importance of Mallows Bay. In 2018, with National Marine Sanctuary Foundation funding, the Chesapeake Conservancy, state of Maryland, and Charles County developed water trail markers and laminated maps, and an audio tour of the Ghost Fleet vessels is forthcoming.

Mallows Bay has also served as a hub for research efforts. In 2017, Duke Marine Robotics Lab and Remote Sensing Facility led an interdisciplinary team from three universities and a private company of drone operators to provide the first-ever high-definition imagery and positioning location of the Ghost Fleet. The following year, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation provided funds to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to deploy a new water quality buoy in the Potomac River adjacent to Mallows Bay that provides real-time water conditions for recreational and commercial users of the river.

“Mallows Bay is just a short drive from our nation's capital. It is one of the most amazing places to explore – full of history, wildlife, and cultural interests, but so few people have heard about it,” says Susan Shingledecker, vice president and director of programs at Chesapeake Conservancy. “This is the first national marine sanctuary in the Chesapeake Bay, and it brings national and international attention to our efforts to restore the health of the Chesapeake, one of the world's most collaborative estuary restorations.”

The designation of new national marine sanctuaries puts them on the map for communities near and far. We at NOAA are excited to help protect these important areas for today and future generations.

Two people read a trail sign
The new sanctuary includes interpretive signage for visitors. Photo: Kate Thompson/NOAA
an aerial shot of two shipwrecks
Shipwrecks of the Ghost Fleet are visible at low tide. Photo: Stephen Badger/Maryland DNR