The proposal to make Maryland’s Mallows Bay a national marine sanctuary cleared a major hurdle Friday, as Gov. Larry Hogan declared he’d reached a “responsible agreement” with federal and local officials to ensure the move doesn’t harm fishing.The designation of Mallow's Bay on the Potomac River as a national marine sanctuary may be finalized by the end of 2019. It would be the first in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.(Dave Harp)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration posted a notice Friday in the Federal Register indicating its intent to move ahead with a marine sanctuary designation for the 18-square mile portion of the Potomac River to protect the historic shipwreck remains found there.

If finalized as expected by year’s end, Mallows Bay, about 30 miles south of Washington, DC, would be the first new national marine sanctuary in nearly two decades. It would also be the first in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Often described as the largest ship graveyard in the Western Hemisphere, the small bay on the Maryland shore of the Potomac holds the sunken remains of nearly 200 known vessels dating to the Civil War, though some artifacts found there go back 12,000 years. It’s best known as the watery crypt for more than 100 wooden steamships built to support the U.S. engagement in World War I. Finished too late to be used, they were deemed obsolete, towed to Mallows for salvage and subsequently burned to the waterline.

Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy, one of many groups pushing for the designation, said he was “thrilled” that the sanctuary designation is finally moving ahead.

“Mallows Bay is one of the Chesapeake's great treasures, a place steeped in our nation's history, a thriving ecological habitat and just a short drive from the capital of the United States,” he said. “It's a place to visit that deserves national and international attention, on par with the likes of Everglades National Park or the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.”

The designation, first proposed by Maryland nearly five years ago, had been stalled for more than a year, with the Hogan administration pressing for the right to have the sanctuary designation revoked in the future it were to interfere with the livlihoods of watermen in the area.

Fishermen in both Maryland and Virginia spoke out vehemently against the proposal starting in 2017 after NOAA released its draft environmental impact statement describing the agency’s “preferred alternative” for setting aside 52 square miles of the Potomac, far beyond Mallows Bay. They noted that other marine sanctuaries prohibit fishing, and they complained loudly that NOAA had misled them about the size of the proposed sanctuary in Maryland.

NOAA agreed to scale back the proposed sanctuary to the boundaries listed in 2015 under the National Register of Historic Places, which encompass most but not all the historic shipwrecks and artifacts. But the watermen remained opposed and suspicious of NOAA’s insistence that it only intends to protect the ship remains from disturbance and has no plans to limit or regulate fishing in the sanctuary. There are other marine sanctuaries set up solely for the purpose of protecting historic wrecks.

NOAA officials and Hogan’s legal counsel, Robert Scholz, began negotiations in early 2018 to resolve the issue. Scholz insisted on Maryland having the right to revoke Mallows Bay’s sanctuary status at the state’s request for up to 15 years after its designation.

Two decades ago, NOAA did agree to include an opt-out clause in its designation of another marine sanctuary, on the Michigan shore of Lake Huron. It was also created to protect shipwrecks, but commercial fishermen, charter boat captains and scuba divers feared it would restrict their activities there. The clause was never invoked, and at least some of those who’d feared the sanctuary have since become its champions.

Advocates for Mallows Bay had expressed reservations about such an opt-out clause in that case, particularly one that could be invoked repeatedly when the sanctuary management plan comes up for review at five-year intervals.

Around the time in April that the Bay Journal and other media reported the hitch in the designation process, Maryland’s congressional delegation expressed its concern in a meeting with Hogan and urged the parties to resolve the problem.

Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, Maryland’s U.S. senators, and Rep. Steny Hoyer, whose district includes Mallows Bay, all applauded the move Friday, issuing a statement saying sanctuary status “will help protect Mallows Bay for future generations, spur tourism, and support local jobs and the economy.” 

Under terms of the agreement, NOAA would reconsider Mallows Bay’s sanctuary designation for up to 10 years, but only if the state presents documented evidence that it has somehow hurt commercial or recreational fishing and that NOAA has failed to address concerns about it raised over time by the state.

“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 statement issued by his office. He thanked NOAA and Charles County for “working with us to craft a responsible agreement to protect our history, and boating and fishing opportunities.”

Kris Sarri, president and CEO of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, said her group saw no reason for an opt-out provisions, since the state will jointly manage the sanctuary with NOAA. But she indicated that the terms were acceptable in order to get the designation moving.

“Nobody ever gets completely what they want,” she said, but she said she was “very excited” to see the designation move forward, and she credited the strong support for it voiced by a broad array of groups.

Robert T. Brown Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said he’d been briefed verbally on the deal but wanted to withhold judgment about whether it protected his members’ interests adequately until he’d had a chance to review the memorandum of agreement between the state and NOAA.

“I’m cautious at this time, very cautious,” he said.

The final environmental impact statement and joint management agreement are available for review here. NOAA will take public comment on them until July 1, after which NOAA submits its decision to Congress for review. Barring further hitches, the designation should become final by year’s end.