Tuesday, October 6, 2015

New National Marine Sanctuary Much Closer to a Berth in Wisconsin

Oct. 5, 2015

By Moira Harrington

Wisconsin Sea Grant welcomed President Obama’s announcement today that the nation’s newest NOAA national marine sanctuary is moving closer to a designation along the Lake Michigan shoreline in Manitowoc, Sheboygan or Ozaukee counties and in the waters in a location to be determined, having met preliminary national significance criteria and management considerations. As proposed, it encompasses 875 square miles.

The Wisconsin sanctuary is currently on a so-called inventory list and now heads into a more intensive public comment period and scoping, preparation of an environmental impact statement and a management plan. Once those processes are complete, the clock would start ticking toward official designation. The timeframe for those actions is not fully known but could range from months to a year. If successful, Wisconsin would host only one of 14 National Marine Sanctuaries and only the second one in fresh water.

The Wisconsin site has been selected, in large measure, based on the success of shipwreck explorations in state waters of Lake Michigan. There are 59 Wisconsin shipwrecks listed on the National Register of Historic Places, far more than any other state. Of that number, a proposed 15 would be within the designated sanctuary boundaries. Another 24 known wrecks are in the proposed sanctuary but are not, at this point, on the register.

Since the 1990s, Sea Grant has supported maritime explorations through grant funding in collaboration with the Wisconsin Historical Society’s (WHS) maritime archeology program.

In addition to shipwreck exploration, mapping and registration for protection, the Sea Grant-WHS partnership extends public understanding of the nautical past by creating and sharing land-based signage that explains the shipwrecks’ significance; preparing geocaches, which are an innovative, accessible and active way to extend the learning; and co-hosting an entertaining and informative website, wisconsinshipwrecks.org.           

“Wisconsin has a rich maritime heritage and an equally rich legacy of preserving that heritage,” said Jim Hurley, Sea Grant’s director. “We are thrilled the national panel looking at siting the newest sanctuary has chosen the Great Lakes to move forward. It means continued historic preservation, along with tourism for an important area of the state and highlights an important ecosystem.” 

Marine sanctuaries are now found in Lake Huron, the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and touch states such as Hawaii, Texas, California and Massachusetts. Sanctuaries are established to protect natural and cultural features while allowing people to use and enjoy the waters in a sustainable way. No disruption of commercial or recreational activities occurs. Sanctuary waters provide a secure habitat for species close to extinction and protect historically significant shipwrecks and artifacts. Sanctuaries also serve as natural classrooms and laboratories.

Wisconsin applied for the sanctuary designation in December 2014 and competed against four other proposed locations. After an initial screening, Wisconsin and a site on the Potomac River emerged as the strongest applicants. The review panel was impressed by the broad range of support for the Lake Michigan proposal from the governor’s office on behalf of the state of Wisconsin; the cities of Two Rivers, Manitowoc, Sheboygan and Port Washington; Manitowoc, Sheboygan and Ozaukee counties; NGOs and area businesses. The Wisconsin Coastal Management Program, along with the WHS, were also highly instrumental in the application process.

The sanctuary’s application reads, in part, “The proposed Wisconsin sanctuary encompasses a key portion of an early transportation corridor that was critical to the expansion of the United States and the development of the agricultural and the industrial core of the nation.” 

Details on how to participate in the public comment period on the proposal are at sanctuaries.noaa.gov/wisconsin/

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