The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Monday gave its thumbs-up to Maryland’s first national marine sanctuary, which is located in Charles County.
The Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary encompasses an 18-square-mile area along Charles County’s western shore that contains the wrecks of more than 200 ships dating from the Civil War. Mallows Bay is perhaps most famous for being the home of the “ghost fleet” of over 100 wooden merchant steamships built during World War I and subsequently scuttled in the bay in 1925.
The wrecks, many of which serve as nesting grounds for birds, are a popular tourist destination. Mallows Bay was featured prominently in a recent episode of “It’s How You Get There,” a History Channel travel show.
NOAA’s decision, called a final ruling, appeared in Monday’s edition of the Federal Register following a 30-day period during which the public was invited to comment on the agency’s 300-page final environmental impact statement and management plan for the sanctuary.
The environmental impact statement said that the marine sanctuary designation is necessary because of “ongoing threats to the maritime cultural heritage resources in this area of the Potomac River.”
“This is ... basically the end point of the long public process,” said Paul Orlando, a regional coordinator in NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “It was an extremely quiet [comment] period except for the support that came out from a number of different community groups. We had nothing out of the ordinary other than lots of expressions of support.”
Congress and Gov. Larry Hogan (R) must review and approve Monday’s final ruling before it can take effect. The text of the ruling says that the sanctuary designation will take effect “after the close of a review period of forty-five days of continuous session of Congress” — which Orlando believes will occur sometime in late November or early December.
“Hopefully there’s absolutely nothing that will come up,” Orlando said. “I don’t expect anything to come up.”
Charles County will manage the sanctuary jointly with the state of Maryland and NOAA. Natural resource management will be handled by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.
Catherine McCall, director of DNR’s Office for Coastal and Ocean Management, said that opportunities for education and recreation were among the most requested features for the sanctuary by the public.
“Along the way it’s been great to hear people’s perspectives and to hear what the sanctuary means to them,” McCall said. “I think the real work is just starting.”
Mallows Bay is the first national marine sanctuary to be designated since 2000.
A press release issued by the Charles County government quoted acting NOAA administrator Neil Jacobs as saying that the marine sanctuary designation is “an exciting milestone for NOAA.”
“We look forward to working with the state of Maryland, Charles County and other local partners to foster education and research partnerships as well as support and enhance local recreation and tourism along this historic stretch of the Potomac River,” Jacobs said.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said that his office is “thrilled by NOAA’s announcement,” according to the county press release.
“Preserving our history, heritage, and natural resources have always been a priority for our administration and designating this national treasure as a marine sanctuary is yet another example of our stewardship,” Hogan said. “[It] will ensure that people from both Maryland and beyond will have the opportunity to experience this amazing site for years to come.”
The process of granting marine sanctuary status to Mallows Bay began in 2014, when then-governor Martin O’Malley, the Charles County government and a coalition of community organizations submitted an application to NOAA. The following year, the National Park Service granted Mallows Bay a listing on the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its historical significance.
In the years since, the application sailed smoothly if slowly through NOAA’s internal review process. NOAA had originally sought to designate 52 square miles of the river for inclusion in the sanctuary, but concerns that such a large sanctuary could adversely affect defense-related activities at Naval Support Facility Indian Head and nearby Blossom Point Proving Ground led the Charles County Board of Commissioners to approve the smaller, 18-square-mile boundary.
Following the publication of the final ruling, Orlando said he was “just swelled with pride for all the people who believed in this project.”
“I am ecstatic and ... very proud,” Orlando said. “I’m just proud of all the people who have given heart and soul to make this happen over the last five years. We’re putting this place on the map.”
“There are plenty of smiles to go around today,” Orlando said.