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.”

Now, a proposal that at one time had seemed to be sailing along with universal support has run into a squall of opposition. Though small compared to the overwhelming number of public comments in favor of the sanctuary, the critics just might have enough clout in the current political climate to scuttle it. President Trump has called for a deep cut in NOAA’s budget, and some Republicans in Congress are skeptical of marine sanctuaries.

The Potomac River Fisheries Commission, which regulates fishing in the mainstem of the Potomac from the District of Columbia to the Chesapeake Bay, is expected to take up the issue Monday. The bi-state panel has been urged by advisory committees of fishermen to either oppose the sanctuary outright or call for it to be much smaller than has been proposed.



Sanctuary supporters say commercial fishermen have nothing to fear. The designation would have no effect on fishing, they say, and point to language in NOAA’s draft management plan specifying that activity would remain under the control of Maryland or the Potomac commission. The only thing regulated would be activities that might harm the wrecks.

“That’s really the only thing that’s prohibited,” said Paul “Sammy” Orlando, NOAA’s liaison for the Mallows Bay sanctuary proposal. “Don’t take it, don’t break it.”

But watermen say they have not seen any convincing written guarantee of their right to keep fishing in the sanctuary. And they point out that the federal law calls for NOAA to review — and possibly change —  sanctuary management every five years. They don’t trust the federal, or even state governments, they say, to not interfere down the road.

“We’ve all heard those words, ‘Read my lips – no new taxes,’” Dean said, reciting the broken campaign pledge made by President George H.W. Bush nearly three decades ago.

It didn’t start out this way. Practically everyone thought it a great idea when, in 2014, Maryland officials nominated Mallows Bay, 40 miles south of Washington in Charles County, to become a national marine sanctuary because of the historic shipwrecks there. Remains of more than 185 vessels dating from the Revolutionary War to the present lie buried in the sediment along the stretch of river encompassing the embayment. About 118 of them were part of the U.S. Emergency Fleet ordered built upon the nation’s entry into the “war to end all wars.” But they were finished too late to play a part in World War I, and subsequently declared surplus by the federal government.

Acquired by a shipbreaking salvage company, the vessels were stripped of reusable steel and then burned to the water line. Today, only the outlines of their hulls can still be seen on the water’s surface, though some have become islands of sorts, with vegetation taking root in them. The area has become a popular spot for canoeing and kayaking.

“It is like no place I’ve ever been,” Anne Stark, a frequent kayaker, said at a public meeting at Anne Arundel Community College. Another speaker, a recreational fisherman, called it a “magical” place because of the mix of natural beauty and history there. 

In October 2015, when NOAA announced its intent to designate Mallows Bay as a marine sanctuary, along with another maritime heritage site in Wisconsin, it drew an enthusiastic response. Maryland advisory committees representing recreational and commercial fishing interests weighed in in favor.

But watermen, who had been silent if not supportive earlier, became alarmed after NOAA released its draft plans for the new sanctuary in January. The agency stated that it preferred designating a 52-square mile area of the Potomac extending well beyond Mallows Bay — an area much larger than watermen thought had been on the table.

NOAA has requested public feedback on four options — its preferred boundaries, plus three alternatives. One is a smaller, 18-square mile sanctuary more narrowly focused on Mallows Bay; another is much larger than the preferred choice, covering 100 square miles of river. And as is always the case in federal decision-making, one alternative would be to do nothing at all.  

Since January, the vast majority of hundreds of comments posted online and made at a pair of public meetings have favored the largest possible boundaries for the sanctuary, with the 52-square-mile area NOAA prefers running second. Proponents say making the sanctuary just 18 square miles would leave out some historic wreck sites; the larger areas proposed also would offer more public access from the shore and enhance tourism-related activities.

But watermen, though relatively few in number, have pressed for “Alternative A” — no sanctuary designation.

So far, every governmental body at the state and local level has supported the sanctuary designation. That may change Monday, when the eight-member Potomac River Fisheries Commission, with four members each appointed by governors of Maryland and Virginia, is scheduled to take up the issue. 

The stretch of Potomac encompassing Mallows Bay has been a “sweet spot” for a growing commercial fishery in blue catfish, according to Martin Gary, executive secretary for the commission. Blue catfish are a nonnative species that was introduced years ago to enhance sportfishing, but authorities have encouraged development of a commercial fishery because “blue cats” have become a concern for the ecological balance of species in the river. They spread like wildfire and devour large quantities of other fish. Last year, commercial fishermen caught nearly 1.7 million pounds of blue catfish, Gary said.

“It’s a very highly valuable area for the watermen,” said Gary, noting that the catch has grown eight-fold in six years. “We want to see it keep going.”

Catches aren’t limited to catfish, either. Upriver of the Route 301 bridge, which would be the lower boundary of a 100-square-mile sanctuary, watermen caught about 26,000 bushels of blue crabs last year and 115,000 pounds of striped bass; they also harvested 3,500 bushels of oysters, according to Bill Kilinski, a Charles County waterman.

“It’s a multimillion-dollar fishing industry going on,” said Kilinski. He said watermen were worried about “government over-reach.”

A trio of advisory committees have urged the PRFC either to oppose any sanctuary, Gary said, or else to back a much smaller protected area than the smallest now proposed. It would cover Mallows Bay proper, and perhaps a narrow strip of water along the Maryland shore on either side.

“’Sanctuary’ causes them to turn into a werewolf,” Gary said of fishermen, noting that many other marine sanctuaries regulate or prohibit fishing.  Commercial fishermen also are wary of NOAA, Gary added, because of its involvement in helping establish harvest-free oyster sanctuaries in Maryland and its plans to designate much of the Potomac as “critical habitat” for endangered Atlantic sturgeon, which is aimed at regulating dredging and other physical disturbance of the river, but possibly other activities.

NOAA’s Orlando said he’s working with others to craft written assurances about the sanctuary, including a memorandum of agreement, intended to put watermen’s worries to rest. It would state as clearly as possible that control over fishing would remain in the hands of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Potomac fisheries commission.

“Other than death and taxes, I don’t know that you can ever guarantee anything,” said Orlando. “But what we are trying to do is put forward a couple of things that we hope will mitigate some of the concern what-if scenarios.”

For some, that’s not good enough, as the federal law authorizing marine sanctuaries requires NOAA to review their management regularly and authorizes the agency to make changes. 

“Even the watermen, I think, believe (Orlando),” Gary said. “But they want absolute assurance, and he can’t give it to them.”

Charlie Stek, a leader in the campaign to designate a Potomac sanctuary, noted that there are three national trails running down the river through the area in question, including at least partly on water: The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail and the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail.

“Not one single thing has changed for any fisherman when you have a national designation for that,” said Stek. “There’s no reason to think anything is going to change if you have a national sanctuary declared.”

Watermen counter that the wrecks are already protected by the state of Maryland and by its inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.

“I want to conserve Mallows Bay and indeed all of Maryland’s waters,” said Andrew Eaton, a Charles County waterman. They’re providing his livelihood, and a living he hopes to pass on to younger generations, he said at a public meeting. But if the rules could change every five years, he said, “that’s a gamble I’m not prepared to take.”

At the request of state and commission fisheries officials, the attorneys general of Maryland and Virginia looked at the federal sanctuaries law. They concluded that while NOAA does have the authority to regulate fishing, it has formally sworn off exercising it in this case, stressing that it’s only trying to protect the historic and cultural resources. To change that would require a lengthy public process, the Maryland opinion says, which would afford those affected a chance to weigh in. And the Virginia legal opinion concludes that because Maryland is officially a co-manager of the sanctuary, the state could effectively veto any move by NOAA to regulate fishing.

If Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is any guide, NOAA has stuck to its pledge not to try to regulate fishing. It’s the nation’s second and largest marine sanctuary created for the sole purposes of protecting maritime history (The first, 16 miles off North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras, covers 10 square miles of Atlantic Ocean bottom where the famous Civil War ironclad Monitor sank in 1862.)

Thunder Bay is in northwestern Lake Huron off the Michigan coast, where dense fog, sudden gales and rocky shores have sunk numerous vessels in an area known as “Shipwreck Alley.” But when proponents floated the idea of designating a maritime-focused marine sanctuary there in the 1990s, it was at least as controversial as Mallows Bay has become. Commercial fishermen objected; so did charterboat captains and scuba divers who frequented the wrecks on the bottom of the lake. The voters of Alpena, MI, an isolated small lakefront city, even gave it a thumbs down in a referendum.

Carol Shafto, former mayor of Alpena, said the controversy led to the forging of an agreement that explicitly ruled out any federal management of fisheries, and giving the state of Michigan joint authority to manage it. They even inserted a five-year sunset clause, she said, which gave the state a chance to pull out of the deal if it didn’t like how it was going.

“They weren’t excited about having outsiders and strangers from Washington, D.C. having anything to do with what we have here,” said Shafto, who noted that her town is 75 miles from the nearest freeway. But she noted that “to see it in writing made it much more palatable.”

Today, those who opposed the sanctuary’s creation say their fears were unfounded.

“For us, it’s working out here fine,” said Dave Rochefort, a commercial fisherman who nets whitefish in the sanctuary. “We’ve had no problems with it whatsoever.”

Rochefort said he and others feared the federal involvement. But he said he got himself named to the advisory council that NOAA set up to oversee the sanctuary, where he could see to it that restrictions weren’t placed on fishing. None was.

Another opponent, Steve Kroll, a scuba diver, did the same. He’s still on the advisory council.

“I didn’t need the federal government to tell me what to do,” he recalled in a telephone interview last week. “We were already diving the wrecks, so I thought it would be more restricted. In reality, access is even better than it was.”

The improved access occurred because sanctuary designation led to the installation of moorings at a number of popular shipwrecks, so that divers had someplace to stabilize their boats. Before, they would use grappling hooks to tie up to the wrecks themselves, which was contributing to their deterioration.

“Everybody fears something coming in and changing things,” Kroll said. “I think the key is they‘ve got to get on board and be part of the process to design it to do what they want it to do.”

Like Kroll, Jason Snyder, a charter boat captain, serves on the advisory council.

“It’s been wonderful, if not the best thing that’s probably happened for us,” he said. “All it’s done is bring more people to our community, and they haven’t done any restrictions on us.”

NOAA designated a 400-square-mile sanctuary in Thunder Bay in 2000. It started out slowly, with limited resources. But in 2007, a 25,000-square-foot visitors’ center opened in leased space at a former paper mill on the Alpena waterfront, and last year saw nearly 100,000 visitors, according to superintendent Jeff Gray.

And three years ago, after a multi-year discussion, NOAA approved a major expansion of Thunder Bay to 4,300 square miles. Shafto said counties neighboring Alpena saw how the sanctuary designation boosted tourism and recreation business, and wanted in on it.

“It’s been a tremendous success story here,” said Shafto, who’s still on the advisory council. But the key to getting it established, she said, involved listening to the opponents and addressing their concerns.

“They have a different stake in the situation,” she said of the commercial fishermen. “That needs to be respected and honored.”