The proposal to establish a national marine sanctuary around Mallows Bay dodged a bullet of sorts earlier this week, when the Potomac River Fisheries Commission declined to take a position, despite urging from Maryland and Virginia watermen to oppose any of the options now on the table.
After nearly three hours of discussion and debate, the eight-member panel defeated a motion by one of its members, Maryland waterman Billy Rice, which objected to any sanctuary in the mainstem of the river, where the commission regulates fishing.
Watermen have raised an outcry against the proposal by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to designate the first marine sanctuary in the Chesapeake Bay region. If approved, it would protect the remains of nearly 200 historic ships sunk in the Potomac, the bulk of them a “ghost fleet” of wooden-hulled vessels in Mallows Bay that were built to aid the United States’ entry into World War I a century ago. A few wrecks date back to the Civil and even Revolutionary wars.
NOAA announced in January that it favored creating a 52-square-mile sanctuary to safeguard the river’s maritime heritage. But it sought public feedback on four options, including a smaller, 18-square-mile area, a larger, 100-square mile area and doing nothing at all. The deadline for comments is March 31.
Federal officials have said they have no plans to curb fishing in the sanctuary, only to preserve and highlight the historic wrecks. But watermen, leery of NOAA’s role in regulating fisheries elsewhere, have expressed skepticism, noting that under the federal marine sanctuary law, the agency could always change its mind later. A trio of advisory groups to the Potomac fisheries commission urged the panel to oppose the sanctuary, or to recommend it be limited to Mallows Bay and a narrow band of water along the Maryland shoreline.
“Once you turn this (river) over to NOAA, it becomes federal and you never get it back,” warned Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association. “Why would we want to give up our sovereignty?”
Paul “Sammy” Orlando, NOAA's liaison for the proposed sanctuary, acknowledged that the agency could change its management every five years. But he noted that the proposal now spells out that there is no intent to regulate fishing in the Potomac.
Lawyers with the attorney general’s offices of Maryland and Virginia advised the commission that NOAA has put in writing that it claims no authority over fishing in the Potomac, and that any change would have to go through an extensive public process, with Maryland’s governor able to veto it.
The vast majority of public comments received so far favor the proposed sanctuary, citing its historic and scenic character. Several conservation advocates testified before the commission in support.
Rice, though, sided with his fellow watermen.
“We’re making out fine,” Rice said, with the wrecks undisturbed now. He said he didn’t believe the potential benefits of sanctuary designation — a promise of increased recreation and tourism around the historic wrecks — was worth taking “even a teeny tiny” chance that fishing might be restricted sometime later.
“The people that butter my bread are against this thing,” he concluded, adding that “the people that are for it, they’re not too friendly to commercial watermen at times.”
But on a vote of 3 to 5, Rice’s motion to oppose any more than a tiny sanctuary around Mallows Bay failed. Other panel members said they didn’t believe the commission has any reason to get involved in the issue, because NOAA had vowed not to meddle with fishing.
“I don’t see a problem with this,” said Virginia Marine Resources Commissioner John Bull, who is also a Potomac fisheries commission member. “I see potential benefits for ecotourism … It’s in the national interest and our interest to protect these historical resources.”
NOAA intends to review all the comments received for and against the sanctuary and review options, Orlando said, with a final decision likely to take a year. The Potomac fisheries commission's objection wouldn't have killed the proposal, but as an official body its stance would have some weight.
Brown said after the commission decision that watermen still hope to enlist enough support in Congress to derail the sanctuary proposal. Under the law, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce makes the designation, but must address any issues raised by congressional committees authorized to review it.