Sanctuaries are designated areas intended to provide a safe haven and protection. But for the watermen of the Chesapeake Bay and its surrounding tributaries, the word “sanctuary” is more often associated with anguish. So when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries initiated the designation process for Mallows Bay – Potomac River on October 7 of 2015, the watermen of the Potomac River began to grow wary of their future.
On February 1, an assorted group of commercial fishermen from all across the Northern Neck of Virginia met with Maryland commercial fishermen at Mundy Point at Pride of Virginia Seafood and Trucking, Inc. to form 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
NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary System was designed to conserve and protect America’s ocean and Great Lakes waters, according to their website. The system includes 13 national marine sanctuaries and two marine national monuments. Their purpose, as stated on their website, is to provide research and monitoring programs for the specific sanctuaries, create programs for education and community engagement, establish national marine sanctuary advisory councils to provide recommendations and help generate the local economies of the marine sanctuaries through tourism and marketing.
On September 16 of 2014, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley submitted an application to nominate Mallows Bay on the Potomac River as a national sanctuary to NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. The application included letters of support from Charles County government officials in Maryland, environmental organizations, historical societies, and surrounding businesses.
While the support letters varied in style, the majority of them were copied from 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 American’s engagement in World War I and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, 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 wooden steamships never saw any action, but cost nearly $1 billion to build, reported the Washington Post. The war ended and the ships never saw action, so they were sold at an auction with the hope of being salvaged by a company out of Alexandria, according to the author of “The Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay,” Don Shomette. The ships were then transported to the Potomac River where they were burned in attempt to recover the scrap metal, but it was not a success, according to Shomette. The ships were abandoned and now, almost 100 years later, nature has reclaimed them.
The Mallows Bay area has been a popular attraction throughout the years, particularly for outdoor lovers and recreational fishermen. However, the application listed several reasons why Governor O’Malley and Charles County were interested in national sanctuary status. 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, among other reasons.
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 and, after review, NOAA announced its intent to move forward in the process. They have also nominated a portion of Lake Michigan – Wisconsin in the same 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.”
A New Kind of Public Review
This particular process of applying for national sanctuary status is a new approach for NOAA, according to Orlando. For past national marine sanctuaries, including their most recent at Thunder Bay in Michigan, NOAA scoped areas themselves before announcing their intent. “It’s a bottoms up, grassroots approach this way as opposed to a more top down approach under the old system,” said Orlando, “I think all of the things being equal, people tend to like this approach a whole lot better.”
According to Orlando, the first set of public meetings and online comment period occurred from Nov. 2015 to the middle of Jan. 2016. The discussions from this first set of meetings reviewed the application and the community’s initial thoughts and desires for the potential marine sanctuary. The input was examined and, according to Orlando, overwhelming the public was in favor of the proposed marine sanctuary as a maritime history site, focusing on the World War I ships.
After review, NOAA combined the original application and the first round of public input to create a Draft Environmental Impact Statement and Draft Management Plan proposal, which was released in Dec. 2016. The original application brought forth by the state of Maryland proposed 18-square-miles of the Potomac River for the sanctuary designation that coincide with the Mallows Bay Widewater Historical and Archeological National Register District. However, NOAA’s proposal includes boundary alternatives of 52-square-miles, which NOAA prefers, and also an option of 100-square-miles.
Orlando stated that the idea for expanding the boundaries were presented by the public, claiming that some citizens even submitted hand-drawn maps to have the boundaries include more of the historical ships. Now they’ve entered round two of the public input, opening the online public comment period on Jan. 9 and hosting two public forums in Maryland on March 7 and March 9.
At the March 7 public forum, Orlando stated they received clear public endorsement in their review for the potential marine sanctuary to include resource protection, recreation and tourism opportunities, education and public engagement and advanced technologies. Other considerations were listed as boundary expansion, retaining ‘Potomac River’ in the sanctuary name, no adverse impact on recreational and commercial fishing, no adverse impact on recreational fossil collection, no adverse impact on local business and land use planning, support for the visitor center and a designation to coincide with the World War I centennial in April. Orlando stated that even if this nomination proposal were to pass, it wouldn’t be finished in time for the centennial.
Fishermen Grow Wary
Since then, many commercial and recreational fishermen have begun to express their apprehension over the sanctuary and its proposed size. The watermen began discussing the potential marine sanctuary at the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) meetings, prompting questions to Orlando through email.
Orlando’s stated that the proposed designation does not include natural resources and the sanctuary would have no authority to regulate commercial or recreational fishing. Although, the state of Maryland claimed in their application they wanted regulatory assistance for the Maryland Nation Resource Police with this marine sanctuary. Orlando also stated that even though NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries Act requires a five-year review, any changes made would have to be done through a public process.
But some of the commercial fishermen, like the newly formed PRWWA, don’t feel like they can trust this proposal. “If this goes through, my feeling is…all of use are signing a check from the watermen with an unlimited amount,” stated Maryland watermen and PRWWA member Richard Riche, “It’ll be a matter of time before the federal government has complete control up there.”
Orlando stated he felt that NOAA has done their best to be clear about their intent. “Part of it is just a lack of understanding about what this is,” said Orlando, “There’s some confusion, maybe, just with the word sanctuary.” The Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) regulates six oyster sanctuaries and 24 percent of Maryland’s oyster reefs are oyster sanctuaries. Oyster sanctuaries not only cost watermen millions of dollars in lost revenue, but for those who violate the ordinances surrounding the sanctuaries it can cost them fines, loss of fishing license and their way of life.
PRWWA Member Monica Schenemann from Lewisetta stated at the second PRWWA meeting that all the fishermen are asking for is language in NOAA’s management plan that specifically protects them. Lack of faith in NOAA from this group of watermen stems from the proposed boundaries, which is five times the original proposal by the state of Maryland.
But the watermen aren’t the only ones concerned with the integrity of this proposal. At NOAA’s first public forum on March 7 at the Charles County Government Building Auditorium brought forth nearly 50 citizens for the public comment period. Most of the opposition brought forward was from concerned commercial fishermen, but some was from organizations who originally supported the sanctuary but felt they were victims of a “bait and switch” with the revised proposal.
Bonnie Morris, of the Charles County Chamber of Commerce, stated they supported the original 18-square-miles. The Charles County Chamber of Commerce even submitted a letter of support in the original application. Now, however, Morris feels differently, alongside chamber member Brian Klaas, who stated the proposed expansion would be “an assault on Maryland’s sovereignty.”
The Piscataway Convoy Tribe was another group that submitted a letter of support in the original application, however the tribe’s grandmother, Dolores Curry, stated at the forum that she doesn’t see how this sanctuary would benefit Mallows Bay at all.
Chairman of the St. Mary’s Watermen Association, President of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, members of the PRFC and its advisory boards and members of the PRWWA all spoke at the forum in opposition of the sanctuary. Commercial watermen drove from Virginia just to have their voices heard.
Some citizens felt the sanctuary would be an embarrassment, stating the sewage and pollution problems in the river are out of control. Some patrons said the abandoned World War I ships that the sanctuary wants to highlight have polluted the river with lead and don’t deserve recognition. Some citizens felt NOAA’s presence simply wasn’t needed.
Those in support of the sanctuary spoke at the forum as well. Many looked forward to the national recognition and tourism opportunities. “I have noticed an increase in people using the boat and kayak launchers since the nomination,” stated Maryland citizen Anne Stark, “It isn’t just the watermen’s waterways. I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay…I understand your worries and concern, but I really think that each one of you, and I realize this is money out of your pocket you feel, but I really think this is such an asset to have NOAA involved in this.”
“Those things are pretty neat to look at. There is a certain amount of fascination to them,” stated Riche, referring to the abandoned ships during the second PRWWA meeting, “But everyone of us agree that nobody wanted to tear them up or disturb them. And there was already more than enough public access for everybody to go access them.”
According to the PRFC, there are somewhere between 700 and 800 commercial fishing licenses issued for the Potomac River, varying in type. According to Riche, the fear is if NOAA designates this area of the river as a marine sanctuary, they could possibly use federal authority to jeopardize the jobs of these 700 to 800 commercial watermen, including his own. Simply put, these watermen feel like federal organizations can’t be trusted with the livelihood of private citizens and want their voices to be heard as clearly as those in support of the marine sanctuary. The online public comment for this marine sanctuary can be found on NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary website and closes on March 31.
Taylor O’Bier is a Northern Neck News correspondent.