Bay Journal

Topics: Conservation + Land Use

Plan to protect ‘ghost fleet’ on Potomac River hits rough water

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The “ghost fleet” sunk in the mud of Mallows Bay never saw action in World War I. But nearly a century later, the decaying wrecks of more than 100 wooden steamships built for that war and left to rot in the Potomac River have triggered a new conflict.

A proposal by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to create a new national marine sanctuary around the skeletal remains of those vessels has riled commercial fishermen in Maryland and Virginia. Despite assurances to the contrary, they see the move as a potential threat to their livelihood. They have flocked to public meetings to oppose it, saying they fear it could restrict or block their access to waters where they’ve harvested a bounty of fish, crabs and oysters for years.

“The word ‘sanctuary,’ makes us shake,” John Dean, president of the St. Mary’s County Watermen’s Association, said at a public meeting earlier this month. “Please leave this alone.”

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About Conservation + Land Use

Since colonial times, no change to the Chesapeake ecosystem has been greater than the alteration of its landscape. A vast expanse of forest once absorbed most of the rainfall and held most of the sediment in place.

Over time, the forests have been replaced with farms and development, all of which have greatly increased the amount of runoff and pollution reaching streams and the Chesapeake Bay. While forests still comprise the greatest land use in the region, they have been greatly altered, consisting of smaller trees and lacking many of the species — such as American chestnut — that were common in the past.

The rapid rate of development in recent decades has accelerated the spread of impervious surfaces such as roads, roofs and parking lots, dramatically increasing runoff and degrading stream health throughout the region. Conservation efforts are underway to identify, and protect, some of the high priority landscapes and resources that remain.

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