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The Many Ghosts of Mallows Bay

Friendly and fearful ghosts grapple over marine sanctuary

       The Ghost Fleet emerges from the graveyard of Mallows Bay on the Potomac River at low tide. More than 200 wrecks wallow here in the nation’s, and one of the world’s, largest and most densely packed repository of old wooden ships.
       The inventory of boats and ships ranges from a Revolutionary War-era longboat to a ferryboat from the 20th century. Most of the wrecks are remnants of a fleet of wooden transport ships built hastily to replace merchant vessels lost to German submarines during World War I. 
      World War I ended, and these ships were obsolete before being pressed into their intended service. Then they became a costly maintenance liability before being left to have their remains salvaged for scrap metal. Historian and underwater archaeologist author Donald G. Shomette tells their story in his book The Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay and Other Tales of the Lost Chesapeake.
       The fleet’s eerie name may reflect the mysterious appearances of the ship remains as they seem to rise from the water in the mist and at low tide. Or the name may have been coined by local watermen.
       In any case, other types of ghosts have emerged as a coalition of state agencies, local government, environmental and historical preservation groups and Indian tribes works to preserve these archeological treasures as a national marine sanctuary — the first in two decades.
Sanctuary for Mallows Bay
      National marine sanctuaries get their title because the U.S. Secretary of Commerce recognizes their “special national significance due to its conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, scientific, cultural, archeological, educational or esthetic qualities.”
       Mallows Bay meets the standard, says Sheree Williamson of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “because it is a unique collection of marine archeology with exceptional potential for research education and recreation.”
        Constructed in 17 different states, the wrecks help tell the story of how America developed its industrial capacity for shipbuilding. Mallows Bay combines education with enjoyment, as visitors experience marine archeology without getting wet — from the shoreline or from a canoe or kayak. 
      The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is part of the Department of Commerce, protects all our 13 national marine sanctuaries plus two national monuments. The smallest marine system managed by NOAA and its partners is the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of North Carolina. One mile in diameter, it protects the remains of the famous civil war ironclad. The largest encompasses 582,578 square miles of marine life in Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. 
      Small or large, places so honored gain prestige, national recognition and access to money and technical assistance. 
      The path to becoming a national marine sanctuary is complex, arduous and not well traveled; the last addition to the system was 18 years ago. 
      In 2014, Maryland asked NOAA to designate Mallows Bay-Potomac River as a national marine sanctuary. The nomination package included a long list of letters of support from Maryland state agencies; local officials especially in Charles County; conservation groups such as the Chesapeake Conservancy and Chesapeake Bay Foundation; Calvert Maritime Museum; universities; and the Piscataway Conoy Indian Tribe. 
       Some sanctuaries protect coral reefs, fish and other natural resources. The idea for Mallows Bay was different: to protect marine archeology. Here, protecting the ecological value is a secondary purpose. 
        Creating a new marine sanctuary requires extensive consultation; over several years everyone who might have an interest in the area is invited to express an opinion. To hear these diverse opinions, NOAA held public meetings and invited written comments. 
       People apparently liked the idea. Support was overwhelming; some people even endorsed expanding the protected area from 18 square miles to as much as 100 square miles. Most folks who commented see these wrecks as friendly ghosts providing platforms for heritage education and tourism as well as nurseries for fish and wildlife. 
Not So Fast
       A few less friendly ghosts appeared, scared up by general distrust of government and specific fears of federal intrusion into fishing rights. In public meetings, St. Mary’s County Watermen’s Association President John Dean conjured up fear about the very word “sanctuary.” His concern is that NOAA may come back in a few years and assert more federal control over fishing.
       “NOAA would have the right to change the management plan and that’s what scares me,” said Ida D. Hall, a Virginia commercial fisherman and former member of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.
        Advocates for a Sanctuary at Mallows Bay worked hard to dispel fears about fishing restrictions. For example, a detailed mapping exercise confirmed little if any real conflict now between the shipwrecks and commercial fishing sites.
        The partnership concept for a Sanctuary in Mallows Bay calls for continued management of fisheries and natural resources by the state of Maryland and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. 
It Can Work
        The proposed sanctuary at Mallows Bay isn’t a typical conflict between new development and nature or historic preservation.
        “We work to attract public attention to our area, not only through our high quality businesses, but also through our amenities,” Charles County Chamber of Commerce chairman Stephen C. Kensinger wrote in comment.” The sanctuary is a unique marine and terrestrial ecosystem that offers tremendous opportunities to educate the public about our nation’s maritime history and to promote conservation, research, recreational fishing and boating and tourism.”
        Making the area a marine sanctuary is likely to bring even more national recognition, given the experience of other regions with sanctuaries.
        The Thunder Bay sanctuary established in 2000 on Lake Huron in Michigan protects another impressive collection of shipwrecks. The designation was initially opposed by locals, fishermen and dive operators. As people learned more, opinion shifted. Instead of a fearsome specter, the sanctuary has become a rallying point for economic development. The town of Alpena has adopted Sanctuary of the Great Lakes as its brand in a successful tourism marketing strategy. 
        At Mallows Bay, advocates have learned cooperation and patience from Michigan’s experience
       Thunder Bay took almost 10 years to progress from an idea to a designation.
      “The value of the pubic process to shape the sanctuary to meet a diversity of needs can’t be overstated. Listening to local concerns and building trust takes time,” said NOAA’s Sammy Orlando.
      Often a lot of time. 
The Gears of Bureaucracy Grind Slowly
      “The Hogan administration continues to work through the details of a Memorandum of Agreement with NOAA, which once finalized, will go out for public comment,” spokeswoman Shareese Churchill told Bay Weekly.
       Once the proposal is complete, NOAA will publish a notice that begins a period of formal review by Congress before final action by the Secretary of Commerce.
       In Mallows Bay, the friendly ghosts of opportunity seem to be standing by until the ghosts that haunt complex partnerships and create suspicion about government regulations can be put to rest. 
        While the wheels of bureaucracy grind, you can visit Mallows Bay on your own boat — — or on a guided tour:
        Visit virtually at