NOAA Proposes National Marine Sanctuary to Preserve Historic Shipwrecks in Lake Michigan

Thunder Bay 2010 Expedition, NOAA-OER (expl4133)

In Lake Michigan, a 1,075 square-mile area spanning Wisconsin’s shoreline is home to a historic graveyard of sunken ships. NOAA is proposing to designate the area as a national marine sanctuary.

According to NOAA, “The shipwrecks in this proposed sanctuary represent a cross-section of vessel types that played critical roles in the expansion of the United States and the development of the Midwest during the 19th and early 20th centuries. During this period entrepreneurs and shipbuilders launched tens of thousands of ships of many different designs, with eastbound ships carrying grain and raw materials, and westbound vessels carrying coal, manufactured goods, and settlers.”

“These shipwrecks really tell us the history of how shipping was the engine of the American economy,” said Russ Green, NOAA regional coordinator. “There’s a huge legacy of risk, sometimes tragedy, personal stories of innovation, entrepreneurship—all locked into this proposed area.”

The proposed sanctuary site includes:

  • 37 known historic shipwrecks, 18 of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places
  • About 80 potential shipwrecks yet to be discovered
  • Wisconsin’s two oldest shipwrecks, dating to the 1830s

What’s more, many of the shipwrecks in Lake Michigan are still in relatively good shape—thanks to the cold, salt-free water, which helps preserve iron and wood, as well as the cold temperature, which helps prevent deterioration.

According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, “Divers have found many [of the sunken ships] with masts still standing, unbreached hulls, and even one with nautical charts still stowed in the drawers of the wheelhouse—something that would be unlikely in ocean waters.”

Unfortunately, a population explosion of zebra mussels (which cling to the sunken ships and rapidly reproduce) poses a serious risk to the structural integrity of the ships.

But the zebra mussels aren’t all bad. Because they can filter a liter of water a day, they’ve helped improve the water clarity. In fact, since their introduction in 1990, underwater visibility has improved from 5-10 feet up to 80-100 feet. The improved clarity in the lake makes it easier to find new shipwrecks, as well as to view and study them.

If the Wisconsin site receives national marine sanctuary designation, it would bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal resources each year. It would be the first national marine sanctuary in Lake Michigan and the second in the Great Lakes.

According to NOAA, the proposed national marine sanctuary designation does not include restrictions on commercial or recreational fishing. The scope of the proposed sanctuary regulations are narrowly focused on maritime heritage resources.

NOAA is expected to make its decision on the proposal by next year. Before the designation would become effective, Governor Scott Walker has 30 days to review the documents.

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