‘Ghost Fleet’ of Shipwrecks Moves Closer to Sanctuary Status

A shipwreck is seen at Mallows Bay in Charles County, Maryland, in February 2011. (Photo via Amazur/Wikipedia Commons)

WASHINGTON (CN) – The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its plans Friday to designate a Maryland ship “graveyard” on the Potomac River as a national marine sanctuary, the first such designation in the state and on the Chesapeake Bay.

Known as Mallows Bay, the stretch of the Potomac River in Maryland’s Charles County boasts the largest graveyard for ships in the Western Hemisphere, as roughly 200 ships dating at least to the Civil War have their final resting place in the river’s tidal waters. The 18-square-mile final sanctuary will not encompass all of the shipwrecks in the area.

Within the boundaries will be a collection of more than 100 World War I steamships built in 40 shipyards across the country as the United States ramped up its wartime shipbuilding efforts, dubbed the “Ghost Fleet.”

“The designation would allow NOAA to complement current state-led efforts to conserve and manage the nationally significant maritime cultural heritage resources in the sanctuary while enhancing public awareness and appreciation,” the final rule states.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the land around Mallows Bay also features Native American sites, battlefields and wildlife.  In the final days of the Obama administration, NOAA proposed making the sanctuary 52 square miles, but the 18-square-mile final designation will generally follow the borders of the existing historical district.

The final rule will split management of the Mallows Bay site between the federal government, the state of Maryland and Charles County. It will officially be published on Monday and go into effect after a congressional review period.

The journey to the ship graveyard being designated as a national sanctuary has been nearly five years in the making, starting when former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley nominated it to NOAA as a potential marine sanctuary in 2014.

As the effort moved along, people who make a living fishing the river raised concerns that designating the area a sanctuary could lead to more regulation, jeopardizing their livelihoods.

After a year of unexplained delays, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan in May announced he had struck a “responsible agreement” with the federal government and Charles County over the management of the area.

The Maryland government is closed Friday for an extended Independence Day holiday and could not be reached for comment.

The Maryland Watermen’s Association, reportedly one of the groups that raised concerns about the designation, did not respond to a request for comment on the designation.

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