Mallows Bay, a popular Potomac River tourist destination famous for its “ghost fleet” of over 100 scuttled World War I-era wooden ships, is poised to become the state’s first National Marine Sanctuary by year’s end.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration submitted its 300-page final environmental impact statement and management plan for the proposed sanctuary for public comment in the Federal Register on Friday.

Publication in the Federal Register kicks off a mandatory 30-day comment period after which NOAA has the option to publish a final ruling that designates Mallows Bay as a National Marine Sanctuary. At that point, Congress and Gov. Larry Hogan (R) have 45 days to review NOAA’s final ruling.

“We are pleased to work with our state and federal partners to highlight one of the county’s national treasures,” County Administrator Mark Belton said in a press release. “I am proud we are taking these next important steps to preserve the beauty of Mallows Bay and highlight this attraction for visitors worldwide.”

The Federal Register announcement also drew praise from the state’s congressional delegation and the governor.

“This designation will help protect Mallows Bay for future generations, spur tourism, and support local jobs and the economy,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) in a joint statement. “Nearby residents, historic preservationists, conservationists, local business owners and state leaders long have been united in their support for establishing a National Marine Sanctuary in Maryland’s Mallows Bay.”

Hogan said that the publication represented a “very important step forward” in the designation process.

“This continues our commitment to skilled stewardship, and puts us on a path to make this national treasure a marine sanctuary this fall,” Hogan said in a press release.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio noted that not only would Mallows Bay be the state’s first National Marine Sanctuary, but it would also be the first new sanctuary to be designated in over two decades.

In the environmental impact statement, NOAA 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.”

“Over time direct damage has been observed from human and environmental sources that cause breaking, redistribution of shipwrecks and/or artifacts, defacing and physical alteration, and burning,” the report stated. “Additionally, resources have been lost due to legal and illegal removal of artifact[s] from the area.”

Recreational boaters and fishermen can cause damage to the shipwrecks by bumping into them, casting anchors into the wrecks and using commercial fishing nets and lines. Climbing on the wrecks has also been known to cause damage, as has the accumulation of trash and marine debris and the effects of climate change.

Along the East Coast, the only other federally recognized marine sanctuaries are Stellwagen Bank off the Massachusetts coast east of Salem, the wreck of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor in Currituck Sound, Va., Gray’s Reef east of Savannah, Ga., and the Florida Keys.

Gov. Martin O’Malley nominated the bay for sanctuary status in September 2014 at the behest of a coalition of advocates including the Charles County Board of Commissioners, the Chesapeake Conservancy and other organizations. The wrecks, many of which serve as nesting grounds for birds, are a popular tourist destination.

According to NOAA, the 18-square-mile site includes the wrecks of 118 of the merchant steamships along with Native American and African American heritage sites and the remains of historic fisheries operations.

NOAA had originally proposed designating 52 square miles of the Potomac River for inclusion in the sanctuary, which would have included the majority of the county’s Potomac River coastline from Chapman State Park to just north of the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial/Senator Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge.

However, in 2017 the county commissioners voted to approve an option for the smaller site, which runs from Sandy Point to Smith Point, out of concern for potential negative impacts on defense-related activities at Naval Support Facility Indian Head and across the river at Naval Support Facility Dahlgren in Virginia. In August, the cast and crew of the History Channel show “It’s How You Get There” filmed a fishing contest among the shipwrecks of Mallows Bay for an episode that aired in November.

Charles County will manage the sanctuary jointly with the state of Maryland and NOAA. Natural resource management will be handled by the state and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.

Twitter: @PaulIndyNews

Twitter: @PaulIndyNews