After five years, proposal to protect sunken 'ghost ships' in Maryland bay advancing toward final approval

Nearly five years after Maryland proposed creating a national marine sanctuary to protect a fleet of sunken “ghost ships” in Mallows Bay, the federal government is advancing the country’s first such designation in 19 years and the only one in the Chesapeake Bay region.

A notice published Friday in the Federal Register indicates that a review of the sanctuary’s boundaries, protections and natural resource impacts is complete. That means the sanctuary could receive federal approval by the end of the year.

The sanctuary aims to protect the remains of a boom in American shipbuilding dating to World War I. More than 150 ships — some believed to be even older, dating to the Civil War — were scuttled in the cove just off the Potomac River, about 30 miles south of Washington.

Similar sanctuaries protect shipwrecks, whales and other sea life in the Atlantic, Pacific and Great Lakes. The designation adds a layer of legal protections to preserve artifacts and sea life, and also can serve to promote tourism and recreation via guided tours and visitor centers.

Since former Gov. Martin O’Malley proposed naming Mallows Bay a national marine sanctuary in September 2014, the area has become increasingly popular for kayaking, birdwatching and other recreation. It’s likely that final approval of the sanctuary designation will lead to construction of a visitor center, interpretive signs and other cultural resources, advocates say.

Approval had been slowed by some concerns that it could lead to restrictions on Potomac River watermen, but state and federal officials say the waters will continue to be regulated by local authorities. Maryland regulates fishing in Mallows Bay, while waters outside the cove are under the authority of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.

The documents now up for approval include a clause that allows the sanctuary designation to be re-evaluated if it harms commercial fisheries.

Gov. Larry Hogan, whose office has been reviewing the proposal for more than a year, said in a statement that state, Charles County and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials reached “a responsible agreement that protects both our history and boating and fishing opportunities.”

Conservation and preservation groups and elected officials broadly cheered Friday’s announcement.

U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer said the federal sanctuary would “help protect Mallows Bay for future generations, spur tourism, and support local jobs and the economy.”

Groups including the Chesapeake Conservancy, National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and National Trust for Historic Preservation thanked the federal lawmakers, NOAA, and the state and Charles County governments for supporting the project.

“When you visit Mallows Bay and paddle among the remains of an underwater fleet, it transports you back in history, all the while enjoying the abundant wildlife that now calls the shipwrecks home,” said Kris Sarri, the sanctuary foundation’s CEO, in a statement. “Mallows Bay is a special place that deserves protection forever.”

The environmental impact statement will be subject to a 30-day public comment period before a final rulemaking can be published in the Federal Register to formally establish the sanctuary designation. The designation could be made final after Congress has been in session for 45 consecutive days.

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