by Taylor O’Bier
Sanctuaries are designated areas intended to provide a haven and protection. But for the watermen of the Chesapeake Bay and its surrounding tributaries, the word “sanctuary” is more often associated with anguish. When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) office of National Marine Sanctuaries initiated the designation of process for Mallows Bay – Potomac River on Oct. 7 of 2015, the watermen of the Potomac River began to grow wary of their future.
On Feb. 1, an assorted group of commercial fishermen from St. Mary’s County in Maryland to Lewisetta and Burgess gathered at Mundy Point at Pride of Virginia Seafood and Trucking, Inc. to band together as the newly named Potomac River Working Watermen Association (PRWWA). One month later, on March 2, they held their second meeting to discuss their plan of action in opposition of the Mallows Bay – Potomac River sanctuary proposal.
In the Beginning
On Sept. 16 of 2014, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley applied to nominate Mallows Bay on the Potomac River as a national marine sanctuary to NOAA. Maryland’s application included diverse letters of support from Charles County government officials in Maryland, environmental organizations, historical societies, and surrounding businesses. While the support letters varied in style, many them had the same basic sentences as Governor O’Malley’s letter that stated, “Mallows Bay is home to the largest and most diverse collection of historic shipwrecks in the United States, from the Revolutionary War to the present, totaling nearly 200 known vessels.”
Commonly referred to as the “Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay,” the area features remains of more than 100 wooden steamships built for the U.S. Emergency Fleet between 1917 and 1919 as part of America’s engagement in World War I and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to NOAA. The fleet was constructed at more than 40 shipyards in 17 states, according to NOAA. Many of the support letters in the nomination application referenced the centennial commemoration of World War I this year and felt the designation would serve as a fitting tribute.
The area has been a popular attraction throughout the years, particularly for outdoor lovers and recreational fishermen. The application stated that it has been used as a living laboratory to understand the changes to natural conditions and the interaction with abandoned and wrecked ships. The application listed several reasons why Governor O’Malley and Charles County were interested in a national marine sanctuary. It stated the NOAA sanctuary brand would expand public recognition, provide power to strengthen partnerships, supplement state authorities through Federal protection and enforcement with consideration that the Maryland Natural Resource Police have limited ability to impose fines or prosecute violators and several other reasons.
Between the national significance of the World War I fleet and its broad coalition of community-support, Mallows Bay was a perfect fit for NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary designation criteria and, after review, NOAA announced its intent to move forward in the process. NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries Chesapeake Bay Regional Coordinator Paul “Sammy” Orlando stated in an interview, “This is a site that’s really celebrating the rich history and heritage of the Potomac River.”
To read the full story pick up a copy of the March 15 edition of the Northumberland Echo