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.

A pair of osprey made their nest on one of the Mallows Bay shipwrecks. (Dave Harp)“The word ‘sanctuary,’ makes us shake,” said John Dean, president of the St. Mary’s County Watermen’s Association, 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 with the overwhelming number of public comments in favor of the sanctuary, the critics aim to capitalize on 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.

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 that activity would remain under the control of Maryland or the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. NOAA is proposing rules intended strictly to prevent damage to the wreck sites.

“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 the Bay’s first 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 were subsequently declared surplus by the federal government.

‘Like no place I’ve ever been’

Acquired by a ship-breaking salvage company, the wooden-hulled vessels were stripped of reusable steel, then burned to the water line. Today, for the most part, only the outlines of their hulls can still be seen on the water’s surface. Some have become islands of sorts, with vegetation taking root in them. The watery graveyard of maritime skeletons has become a popular spot for canoeing and kayaking.

“It is like no place I’ve ever been,” said Anne Stark, a frequent kayaker, 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.

Others see it as a golden opportunity to promote outdoor recreation, history and ecotourism, which will yield economic benefits for communities along the riverfront.

“We think a national designation will bring national attention to this treasure in the Chesapeake Bay,” said Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy, an Annapolis-based nonprofit that’s been a leading advocate for designating the sanctuary.

In October 2015, when NOAA announced its intent to designate Mallows Bay as a marine sanctuary, it drew an enthusiastic response.

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. They recalled seeing a map early on, when fishing advisory committees were briefed, that seemed to indicate the sanctuary would only cover Mallows, a rounded recess in the riverbank in Charles County, MD. Some even accused NOAA of a “bait-and-switch.”

Supporters deny any intentional deception. The precise dimensions of the sanctuary were not spelled out in the text of Maryland’s nomination in 2014 — though a map accompanying it did depict an area extending beyond Mallows up, down and across the river.

NOAA has now 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 that 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. In late March, watermen made a determined bid to get the Potomac River Fisheries Commission to weigh in against the sanctuary. The eight-member body oversees fishing in the mainstem of the river from Washington, DC, to the Chesapeake Bay.

The stretch of Potomac encompassing Mallows Bay has been a “sweet spot” for a growing, blue catfish commercial fishery, according to Martin Gary, executive secretary for the eight-member commission. Blue catfish are a nonnative species that was introduced years ago to enhance sport fishing. Authorities have encouraged the 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,” Gary said, 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,” Kilinski said. He said watermen were worried about “government overreach.”

A trio of advisory committees urged the Potomac commission to either oppose any sanctuary or 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.

Wary of sanctuaries

“ ‘Sanctuary’ causes them to turn into a werewolf,” Gary said of fishermen, noting that many other marine preserves regulate or prohibit fishing. Commercial fishermen also are wary of NOAA, Gary noted, because of its involvement in other hot-button issues. The federal agency is helping to restore oyster habitat in state-designated sanctuaries in Maryland that are off-limits to harvest; it’s also looking at designating the river as “critical habitat” for endangered Atlantic sturgeon, which could restrict dredging and other physical disturbance of the river, and possibly other activities.

At the commission meeting, watermen warned that the federal agency would usurp its authority over fishing one day. They urged the bi-state body, with its members evenly split between Maryland and Virginia, to register its objection. A motion to oppose anything but a tiny sanctuary focused on Mallows Bay failed, though, by a vote of 3–5, with most commissioners saying they were satisfied with NOAA’s pledge not to meddle with fishing.

Watermen have vowed not to give up, though, and hope to enlist enough support in Congress to derail the sanctuary proposal. Under the law, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, which includes NOAA, makes the final decision; but any proposed designation is subject to review by congressional committees, and the administration is required to address any issues raised.

NOAA’s Orlando said he’s working with others to craft written assurances about the sanctuary that are intended to put watermen’s worries to rest.

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

The Ghost Fleet in Mallows Bay has slowly become a backbone for emerging ecosystems that have grown on the wrecks. (photo by Don Shomette)Map of the Potomac shows the area proposed to become the Chesapeake watershed's first  National Marine Sanctuary. (NOAA) The Ghost Fleet in Mallows Bay has slowly become a backbone for emerging ecosystems that have grown on the wrecks. (photo by Don Shomette)Legal opinions by the Maryland and Virginia attorneys general state that NOAA would need to go through a lengthy public process to go back on its current pledge not to interfere with fishing in the sanctuary, and that Maryland’s governor would effectively have a veto over that.

For some, that’s still not good enough. 

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

If Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is any guide, NOAA has stuck to its pledge not 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 took a toll on numerous vessels in an area known as “Shipwreck Alley.” 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 charter boat captains and scuba divers who frequented the wrecks on the bottom of the lake. The voters of Alpena, MI, an isolated small town on the edge of the proposed sanctuary, even gave it a thumbs-down in a referendum.

“They weren’t excited about having outsiders and strangers from Washington, DC, having anything to do with what we have here,” recalled Carol Shafto, who was mayor of Alpena at the time. The controversy ultimately led to an agreement that explicitly ruled out federal involvement in fishing, and gave the state of Michigan equal say in its management.

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, Nearly 100,000 visitors dropped in last year, according to superintendent Jeff Gray.

‘It’s working out here fine’

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. “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 the 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.”

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.

With Mallows Bay, NOAA plans to review all comments received and weigh whether any changes to the proposal are warranted. Orlando said the agency could settle on a “hybrid,” perhaps something smaller or in between the options laid on the table in January — though nothing larger than the suggested 100-square-mile maximum.

The price tag for a new national marine sanctuary is unclear. The draft management plan for the Mallows Bay-Potomac River proposal projects annual operating costs ranging from $250,000 to $750,000, but Orlando said that was speculative. Funding would depend on budgets and the ability or willingness of state and local governments, nonprofits and even private entities to pitch in.

Thunder Bay’s visitors’ center, for instance, was built by a private developer, with NOAA signing a 20-year lease as its anchor tenant. Gray, the Thunder Bay superintendent, said the sanctuary started out on a shoestring, but its budget has grown to $1.2 million a year, with a third of that for rent and much of the rest paying salaries for six to seven core staff and operating vessels to get out on the sanctuary.

If past sanctuary proposals are any guide, it could take NOAA a year to make a final decision, Orlando said. But big changes may be afoot at NOAA that cloud the future for this national sanctuary, and perhaps all of them. The White House in March proposed a $250 million cut in the agency’s “grants and programs for coastal and marine management, research and education.” Spokespeople at NOAA and the Commerce Department, of which NOAA is a part, said it was too early to say how or whether that would affect the national marine sanctuary program.

Meanwhile, an important milestone seems sure to be missed. When sanctuary proponents first geared up 3.5 years ago, they aimed for getting it designated during the centennial of the United States’ entry into World War I. Protecting what remains of the “ghost fleet” would be a fitting tribute to the country’s contribution and sacrifice in that conflict, they argued. April 6 marks the 100th anniversary of the U.S. declaration of war.

“We had all hoped it would be done by now,” said Charlie Stek, who’s helped to spearhead the campaign to designate a Potomac sanctuary. “Obviously, this process is moving more slowly than we would have liked.”