Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary Honored for Commitment to Conservation with Sustainable Growth Award

By Haley Randall

December 2020

“This started with community, it’s been about community, and we received this award on behalf of the community and the partners,” said Paul Orlando, superintendent of Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary, regarding the sanctuary’s recent Maryland Sustainable Growth Award.

The newest addition to the National Marine Sanctuary System, Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary, is already making waves. The sanctuary was recognized for its commitment to the preservation of Maryland’s natural resources and waters on October 5, 2020, with a Maryland Sustainable Growth Award. Orlando virtually accepted the award alongside Eileen Minnick, director of the Charles County Department of Recreation, Parks, and Tourism.

Since their inception in 2013, the Maryland Sustainable Growth Awards have recognized various individuals and public and private entities for their dedication to smart, environmentally-friendly developments and achievements within the state. The Sustainable Growth Commission, founded in 2010 by the Maryland General Assembly, calls for annual nominations for awards in three categories: the Leadership and Service Award, the Sustainable Communities Award, and the Preservation and Conservation Award.

Credit: Maryland Department of Planning

Maryland Secretary of Natural Resources Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio nominated Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary for this year’s Sustainable Growth Awards. The sanctuary was selected as the recipient of the Preservation and Conservation Award in recognition of the tremendous effort expended by NOAA, local and state partners, and the community to achieve the goal of sanctuary designation.

The sanctuary is co-managed by NOAA, the state of Maryland, and Charles County, Maryland, which has historically facilitated public access to these waters via Mallows Bay Park. The official designation as a national marine sanctuary is significant because it expanded public access to this ecosystem and increased opportunities for programming, interpretation, and education; which benefits local businesses and members of the community.

Conservation in the Nation’s Capital

An osprey tends its nest at Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary, located about 30 miles from Washington, D.C., protects a host of cultural, archaeological, and natural resources, including ecologically important habitat for birds, fish, and other wildlife; areas of importance to the Piscataway Conoy Confederacy and other indigenous groups; and the remnants of 200 wooden steamships dating back to World War I, known as the “Ghost Fleet.”

Prior to the designation of Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary on September 3, 2019, the most recent addition to the sanctuary system was Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which was designated on September 25, 2000. This makes Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary the first addition to the sanctuary system in almost 20 years.

A Tribute(ary) to the Community

State and community partners celebrated the designation of Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary with NOAA staff in November 2019. Photo: Kate Thompson/NOAA

Though Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary was designated in 2019, the campaign to add the 18-square-mile area in the tidal Potomac River to the sanctuary system began years earlier. Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley first nominated the area in 2014 for sanctuary status with the support of various conservation, recreation, historical, education, and business groups, as well as the Piscataway Conoy Confederacy and Sub-Tribes. NOAA then began a nearly five-year process of working with these partners to secure the designation.

“We started off with one trash clean up event at the very beginning of this [designation] process...and that trash cleanup grew into an entire network of community events, education programs in schools, the use of the sanctuary as a living laboratory, a host of science projects ...the list goes on,” Orlando said of the ways that the surrounding community has been involved and has benefitted from the designation.

Orlando takes great pride in community members’ initiative and the ways that they have acted as trailblazers for the Chesapeake Bay region’s first national marine sanctuary. “Basically, before the management plan, before the site was even put together, the community was already doing many of the activities that would find their way into the plan,” Orlando said.

One of the many reasons that Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary stands out from others in the system is because it was the first sanctuary to be designated under the new community-based guidelines, which Orlando says is fitting for a sanctuary characterized by strong community leadership. “The community behind Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary has been involved since day one. There is no way to describe it other than that the process was owned by the community from the start, and they are the ones who brought it across the finish line.”

While Orlando accepted the Sustainable Growth Award, he is clear that the award belongs to the community and partners who worked tirelessly to make Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary a reality. The award is both a celebration of how far the sanctuary has come and of where it is headed. “The state of Maryland views this as an incredible opportunity to brand a portion of the state for the purposes of tourism and recreation, and to create community programming in different ways than what was available to them,” Orlando said. “The award is a recognition of how important the designation was, and why people fought so hard at all different levels of the county, state, and community to make this happen.”

Community Input Will Help Shape Sanctuary’s Future

Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary is a popular kayaking spot where adventure-seekers can explore the famous shipwrecks of the “Ghost Fleet” and spot incredible wildlife. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

The community has already played a huge role in the success of Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary, and the sanctuary will continue to rely heavily on community input through its Sanctuary Advisory Council. Each national marine sanctuary has its own Sanctuary Advisory Council, which is a community-based advisory group that makes recommendations on issues including recreation and tourism, science, and management. The Mallows Bay-Potomac River council consists of 15 voting members, with an alternate for each seat, as well as several non-voting members. The sanctuary recently announced new members of the new Sanctuary Advisory Council, with just a few alternate seats and one youth non-voting seat left to be filled. Applications must be received by fax or postmarked by December 18, 2020.

Orlando emphasized his love for being in the community working to translate community members’ positive energy into action and stewardship. “That’s the part I’ve missed the most this past year during the global pandemic,” he says, and is especially eager for the opportunity to reconnect with the community in a year that has made getting out into the field difficult.

Despite the challenges of this year, the staff and community of Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary remain committed to the conservation of this beautiful place. “People want to make this a place where you can go and find that special connection with the great outdoors,” Orlando says, and the Maryland Sustainable Growth Award is proof of that. “Any award is hardly the accomplishment of just one person, and really the recipient is just the face of so many who have been committed and passionate for so long. That’s truly the case for the designation of this particular sanctuary.”

Upcoming Meeting

The first Sanctuary Advisory Council meeting for Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary will be held virtually on December 7, 2020. To attend the meeting, please register in advance at GoToWebinar. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar. If you are unable to participate online, you can connect to the meeting by phone at 562-247-8422, using the access code 170-191-799.
Three people at a desk signing a document.
Superintendent Paul Orlando signs the Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary Memorandum of Agreement alongside Maryland Secretary of Natural Resources Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio in June 2019. Photo: Karin Dodge/Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Haley Randall is a Recreation & Tourism intern with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.