NOAA designates new Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary

By Elizabeth Weinberg

July 2019

For nearly 20 years, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Lake Huron has been the youngest national marine sanctuary in the United States. This month, that will change as NOAA designates 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 will protect the remains 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 by NOAA, the state of Maryland, and Charles County. The designation will officially take effect following a 45-day review by Congress and the governor of Maryland.

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

map of new sanctuary
The new national marine sanctuary is located in the tidal Potomac River. Image: NOAA

A sanctuary for the people

In 2014, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley submitted a nomination to NOAA 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 the past five years, the proposal has undergone 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, and 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.”

person fishing in a boat
The Mallows Bay area is popular with recreational kayakers and anglers. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

Tides of history

After consulting with community members and state and federal agencies, NOAA has designated an 18-square-mile stretch of Maryland’s Potomac River as the new national marine sanctuary. Mallows Bay-Potomac River will protect nearly all of the remains of the “Ghost Fleet,” hundreds of World War I-era wooden steamships. During World War I, a thousand wooden steamships were commissioned to support the U.S. war effort. However, the war ended before the ships could be used and hundreds of them were scuttled in the Potomac River. Many of them remain, now protected by the national marine sanctuary.

In addition to the Ghost Fleet, the sanctuary will protect archaeological and cultural resources spanning centuries. Evidence of Native American habitation of the area dates back 12,000 years, and Mallows Bay is important to the Piscataway Conoy Tribe and other Native Americans in the region. 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.”

The new Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary will protect shipwrecks and other artifacts representing multiple eras of our nation’s history. Photo. Matt McIntosh/NOAA

A community hub

Although there’s still some time before the sanctuary designation officially takes effect, Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary is already serving as the heart of this Chesapeake Bay community.

The area provides hands-on education experiences: from 2014 to 2018, 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.

children looking at a fish tank
Students from Ocean Guardian School JC Parks Elementary participate in a field trip at Mallows Bay. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

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. A story map created by the Chesapeake Conservancy in 2016 also helps individuals near and far get to know the Ghost Fleet.

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 Maryland Department of Natural Resources deployed a new water quality buoy in the Potomac River adjacent to Mallows Bay that will provide real-time water conditions for recreational and commercial users of the river.

osprey landing in its nest
An osprey lands at its nest in the new national marine sanctuary. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

“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 would be the first national marine sanctuary in the Chesapeake Bay, bringing 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 Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary puts it on the map, and we at NOAA are excited to help protect this historic area for today and future generations.

Elizabeth Weinberg is the social media coordinator and writer/editor for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.