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Friday, June 21, 2024 | Back issues
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Shipwreck Sanctuary Slated for Expansion

WASHINGTON (CN) - The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Friday that it plans to significantly expand the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary after an eight year evaluation process. The notice of intent details four options for expanding the boundaries, as well the development of an environmental impact statement and a draft management plan.

The Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, the nation's first national marine sanctuary, was designated in 1975 to protect the wreck of the USS Monitor, a Civil War ironclad battleship. After a battle in 1862 with a Confederate ironclad, the CSS Virginia, it sank in a storm while under tow, 16 miles off the coast of North Carolina.

The existing sanctuary comprises an area one-mile in diameter from seabed to surface surrounding the wreck. During the agency's 2008 sanctuary management plan, NOAA received public comments suggesting that the issue of boundary expansion be explored. The sanctuary's citizen advisory council voted to continue the evaluation in 2009.

In October 2014, a NOAA team discovered the World War II wrecks of German U-Boat 576 and the freighter Bluefields, found within 240 yards of each other in the region of the Monitor wreck in an area termed the "Graveyard of the Atlantic." That discovery was the result of a partnership between NOAA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to survey WWII vessels lost off the coast of North Carolina.

"Most people associate the Battle of the Atlantic with the cold, icy waters of the North Atlantic," David Alberg, superintendent of NOAA's Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, said. "But few people realize how close the war actually came to America's shores. As we learn more about the underwater battlefield, Bluefields and U-576 will provide additional insight into a relatively little-known chapter in American history."

In August 2015, the agency, in partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard, announced the discovery in the same regions of a World War I wreck, the Diamond Shoal Lightship No. 71, the only lightship sunk by enemy action during that war. It was also sunk by a German submarine. Lightships served as floating lighthouses. Shortly before LV-71 was attacked, it had issued a warning that an unarmed American steamer, the Merak, had been torpedoed by the German sub, which intercepted the warning and came after the lightship.

The agency has offered four models for expansion. Model A would be restricted to select wreck sites in federal waters, which would be separate from each other. The sites would be those listed in the National Register of Historic Places, state craft, military gravesites and other individual historical wrecks. Model B would include a small area around Cape Hatteras that contains 65 known wrecks in federal waters. This model might include some state waters pending the results of further input and evaluation. Model C would include a larger area off Cape Hatteras. It would expand on Model B by including at least 75 wrecks in federal waters and at least 175 wreck sites in state waters. Model D would include three specific areas of federal, and potentially state, waters that contain historically significant collections of wrecks, to include at least 100 wreck sites.

"For more than 40 years, Monitor National Marine Sanctuary has honored the USS Monitor and the memory and service of her officers and crew," Alberg said. "The proposed expansion is the result of a collaborative public process and provides an opportunity for us to honor another generation of mariners who rose to the country's defense when war erupted off America's shores. Our goal is to protect these ships, these hallowed grave sites, and preserve the special stories they can tell about our maritime and cultural heritage."

Comments are due by March 18, and the agency will host five meetings in February, four in North Carolina, and one in Washington, D.C.

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