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 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 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 Sept. 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.”
Taylor O’Bier is a Westmoreland News correspondent.