On Monday, President Obama announced plans to create two sanctuaries — one in Maryland’s Potomac River, and another in Lake Michigan — which would be the first new national marine sanctuaries designated since 2000.
The announcement came during the opening day of the second annual Our Ocean conference, held this year in Valparaiso, Chile. The conference brings together world leaders to discuss threats to marine ecosystems, including illegal fishing, plastic pollution, ocean acidification, and the creation of marine protected areas.
“Our economies, our livelihoods, and our food all depend on our oceans, and yet we know that our actions are changing them,” Obama said in a video announcing the marine sanctuaries. He cited greenhouse gas emissions contributing to ocean acidification, marine pollution, and illegal fishing as serious threats facing the oceans. The president and went on to tout both the United States’ efforts to curb carbon pollution and the creation of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, the largest marine reserve in the world, as actions meant to safeguard marine health.
“Today, I can announce we are taking steps to create two new marine sanctuaries,” Obama said. “These actions will protect waters of historic and national importance, and in the coming months, I will look for opportunities to protect even more of our waters.”
Together, the marine sanctuaries would protect nearly 900 square miles of water in the United States: one 875-square mile section of Lake Michigan, near Wisconsin, and a 14-square mile stretch of tidal waters in Maryland. Both are areas known for their collection of shipwrecks — the proposed site in Lake Michigan is home to 39 known shipwrecks, with 15 listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Marlow Bay, the proposed Maryland site, is home to the largest number of known shipwrecks in the Western Hemisphere, with nearly 200 vessels from the Revolutionary War to present day. The Maryland site is also an area of particular ecological importance, providing habitat for bald eagles, striped bass, osprey, herons, beavers, as well as other water fowl and fish. The proposed site in Lake Michigan also serves as an important stopover for migratory birds making the seasonal journey from Canada to Central and South America.
Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reopened the public nomination process for marine sanctuaries for the first time in 20 years. Along with the two proposals announced today, five other sites from around the country were nominated. Both of the approved nominations were proposed by the state’s governor — Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) and then-Maryland governor Martin O’Malley (D).
Defining an area as a marine sanctuary is basically the aquatic equivalent of designating an area as wilderness, and affords the area the some of the more stringent protections available under the federal government, though marine sanctuaries can still be open to potentially disruptive activities like fishing. There are currently 14 marine sanctuaries designated throughout the United States, ranging from the Pacific Islands to the Florida Keys. Any activities, whether recreational or commercial, that are conducted within marine sanctuaries must be deemed compatible with resource protection by the Secretary of Commerce. Generally, when an area is designated as a marine sanctuary, it becomes off-limits to oil and gas drilling.
Conservation groups applauded today’s announcement, with the Chesapeake Conservancy calling it “a milestone in the designation process.”
“We’re thrilled to learn of NOAA’s Notice of Intent, as Mallows Bay-Potomac River is now a step closer toward becoming the first National Marine Sanctuary designated in more than 20 years and the first ever in the Chesapeake,” Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy, said in a statement. “We’re now calling on the public for their help to make this dream a reality by attending the public meetings and telling NOAA officials why this designation is important. The public’s participation during this critical phase can help protect Mallows Bay for generations to come.”
The public can submit comments to NOAA about the sanctuaries through January 15, either online or through the mail. Following the public comment period, NOAA will draft an environmental impact statement, a management plan, and potential regulations for each site before making its final determination.
An earlier version of this post referred to marine sanctuaries as the highest level of protection that can be designated under the federal government. The highest level of protection is actually a no-take marine reserve, which prohibits activities like fishing or drilling.