Potomac River watermen are worried that a proposal designating the area around Mallows Bay a national marine sanctuary could be detrimental to commercial fishing in the area. (Jerry Jackson, Baltimore Sun video)
The congregation of scuttled ships in and around Mallows Bay is often called a ghost fleet, but it looks more like a mass grave of skeletons. When the waters ebb at low tide, the metal that once framed wooden hulls emerges like fleshless ribs.
Though they lie in ruins, the century-old wrecks are the remnants of a turning point in American history, the leftovers of a World War I shipbuilding boom that helped create a world power. Some of the vessels resting at the bottom of this bend in the Potomac River are believed to be even older, from perhaps the Civil War or even earlier.
A long-pending proposal would place the forgotten maritime graveyard inside a new national marine sanctuary, aiming to preserve them as long as nature will allow. The effort already is drawing more history buffs, school groups and kayak tours to this remote peninsula of Charles County, some 30 miles south of Washington, D.C.
But five years after the site was nominated and four years after then President Barack Obama formally advanced the designation, supporters of the Mallows Bay sanctuary are worried it isn’t getting any closer to reality.
They fear that opposition from watermen — who see all the attention for the shipwrecks as a bad omen for their livelihoods — is delaying the sanctuary. Watermen from both sides of the Potomac worry it’s just another step toward tighter limits on fishing and crabbing.
The sanctuary program, administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was established in the 1970s to recognize and offer federal protections to marine environments with ecological, historical, cultural, scientific or educational significance.
Final approval of the sanctuary proposal has been stuck for more than a year in a review by Gov. Larry Hogan’s office. Officials with Hogan’s office and NOAA won’t explain the delay, other than to say it’s not being caused by the watermen’s concerns. They say they are negotiating “final details” that could be resolved by the fall.
“We strongly support the final designation, and it’s just a matter of getting the final details right,” said Michael Ricci, a spokesman for the Republican governor.
But both sides — those who see the sanctuary as a looming threat and those who see it as long overdue — find the delay and lack of communication about the status of the proposal troubling.
Proponents say labeling the site a sanctuary means another layer of protection — adding sanctions against vandalism, charging the federal government with monitoring the area, and making federal funds available if needed. They say they don’t plan to impose new restrictions on commercial fishing.
The federal government is moving forward with a plan to create a national marine sanctuary at Mallows Bay in Charles County -- the site of the largest collection of historic shipwrecks in the nation -- President Barack Obama will announce Monday.
But watermen like Pete Springer say they have no reason to trust officials’ assurances the sanctuary won’t eventually add yet another layer of regulation or restrictions onto their businesses. Springer’s family long operated oyster-shucking houses in Charles County, but he can’t rely on that diminished industry today. He now mostly fishes for invasive blue catfish that are multiplying in the Potomac.
He passes through the ghost fleet at the beginning and end of every day on the river, and understands the desire to preserve it. But he doesn’t understand why the sanctuary’s boundaries, proposed to extend 18 square miles across Mallows Bay and the Potomac, need to extend so far into his fishing grounds.
“Nobody has a problem with them coming in here and making a sanctuary” within Mallows Bay, Springer said. “Just don’t do it in the river.”
Others say the sanctuary is needed because the fleet isn’t some static record of history. Storms have tossed and rearranged the ships, and they’ve occasionally caught fire, presumably at the hands of vandals. A group of Charles County elementary school students recently completed a project that concluded the Potomac’s steady flow is gradually dragging them downriver.
About 200 ships, most of them dating to World War I, rest at the bottom of Mallows Bay, a cove off of the Potomac River 30 miles south of Washington, D.C. A national marine sanctuary has been proposed over 18 square miles of water to protect the wrecks.
Historian Donald Shomette, who detailed the ships’ history in a 2009 book, is among those concerned that without investment and recognition, Mallows Bay will fade from memory once again. He wants to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“This would be the most unique national marine sanctuary in America,” Shomette said. “It would be one of the most unique in the world.”
Most of the ships in Mallows Bay date to a massive shipbuilding effort that began with President Woodrow Wilson’s national call to arms against Germany in April 1917. The wooden steamships were hastily constructed at more than 40 shipyards in 17 states. As quickly as that effort began, the ships became obsolete when World War I ended in 1918.
Though some found use ferrying food to war-torn Europe or rescuing people from the Russian Revolution, many ships that had launched to great fanfare months earlier suddenly became surplus. They were brought to a Virginia salvage yard, stripped of valuable metals and other parts, and eventually tied together at anchorage in Mallows Bay.
While the vessels rotted away in the cove, their rapid construction marked the foundation of what became a booming maritime and shipbuilding industry in the United States. They also marked the nation’s shift from focusing on inward expansion to more global involvement. Shomette said the ghost ships are remarkable not for any war heroics, but as proof of the nation’s resolve and ingenuity.
“This is a representation of American can-do,” Shomette said. “They are symbolic of what we did.”
Scientists thought Atlantic sturgeon had all but vanished from Maryland waters, and efforts to revive the population failed. But there is growing evidence the endangered fish are thriving in the Nanticoke River and its tributaries.
After enduring decades of decay, tides and storms, the ships now testify to the dominion of nature. Some are half buried, or tangled in driftwood and the roots of trees that grow out of them. They’ve created homes for crabs and rockfish and osprey.
And as Mallows Bay has grown in popularity among kayakers, scuba divers and birdwatchers, the desire to preserve the area has grown, too. A group that included Chesapeake Bay advocates, Charles County businesses, historians and state officials petitioned NOAA to establish the country’s 14th national marine sanctuary in 2014.
The designation applies to some 600,000 square miles of waters as far away as American Samoa and, nearest to Maryland, in the Atlantic just off the coast of North Carolina. Some, like the Mallows Bay proposal, aim to preserve and commemorate important maritime history, like a mile-wide column of water off the coast of North Carolina. It preserves the wreckage of the USS Monitor. a Civil War vessel. The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Lake Huron contains the remnants of two steamships dating to the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Ohio and the Choctaw.
One that spans 842 square miles at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay marks both a historic trade route full of shipwrecks and a famously abundant fishing ground.
But others, spread across the Pacific, focus on protecting wildlife, including whales, coral reefs and seabird colonies.
Warmer winters — not overfishing — have depleted Chesapeake Bay oyster populations in recent decades, researchers have found. The changing environment affected oysters, clams and scallops up and down the East Coast of the United States, according to a study.
As the Mallows Bay sanctuary proposal has advanced, watermen have looked to those other sanctuaries with concern. They have demanded statements in writing that say managers of a Potomac sanctuary won’t one day establish new restrictions on fishing, or push them out of a section of the river entirely.
Without such a guarantee, they are leery, despite officials’ assurances that their only interest is the ships.
“Your lips are always sugercoating when you want something,” said Richard Richie, a St. Mary’s County native who has worked on the water on and off for 40 years. Regulations are so burdensome, he says, that he is now giving up on it, moving on to start a farm in upstate New York. “They’ll tell you everything you want to hear, and there’s no reason to trust them.”
Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said he has had conversations with state officials about the concerns as recently as the past couple months.
“We want to make sure our industry and our heritage are protected in the main stem of the river,” Brown said. “Let the people enjoy it, but leave our heritage alone. Let us fish.”
Sammy Orlando, NOAA liaison for the Mallows Bay proposal, said the majority of marine sanctuaries are open to fishing, and that officials have no plans to take over any management of natural resources around the shipwrecks. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources regulates fishing and crabbing in Mallows Bay, while the Potomac River Fisheries Commission oversees fishing in the river itself.
Orlando said the sanctuary proposal is “extremely close to a possible endpoint,” but that after a years-long process of public review, the sanctuary proposal is now “a matter of government to government consultation.”
Asked if there have been any other significant matters to be worked out before the proposal can proceed, officials in Hogan’s office and at NOAA said no, but declined to elaborate.
That is frustrating the diverse coalition of sanctuary supporters. More than a dozen groups demanded action in a letter sent last month to Hogan, U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, Rep. Steny Hoyer and Timothy Gallaudet, assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere.
“For our organizations to continue to invest in this site and bring in new partners who will want to invest … we need a long-term commitment from the state and NOAA,” wrote Kristen Sarri, CEO of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.
Maryland has taken steps to preserve its history but there's more to be done.
The groups hope that a designation will lead eventually to construction of a visitors center, interpretive signage or other resources that draw attention to the ships’ history. While state law already protects the artifacts from vandals and thieves, placing them inside a NOAA sanctuary could add new layers of protection — both through federal laws and enforcement activity by federal police.
Cardin is “very concerned” about the sanctuary’s delay because of its significance for Southern Maryland, spokeswoman Sue Walitsky said. The senator recently discussed the issue with Hogan and was told “an announcement should be coming shortly,” she said.
Dean Naujoks, the Potomac Riverkeeper, said sanctuary supporters have lost patience as the governor’s office continues its review, but offers no transparency into that process.
“If he’s opposed to it,” Naujoks said, “he needs to come out and be opposed to it.”
Supporters had hoped to celebrate the new sanctuary in time for the centennial of the end of World War I, on Nov. 11, 1918, which also marked four years since the Mallows Bay sanctuary’s nomination. But that anniversary has long come and gone.