Barlow calls it 'the ultimate home run'

OSWEGO — Local residents spoke largely in support of a proposed Lake Ontario national marine sanctuary at a Wednesday meeting hosted by some of the federal officials who ultimately are tasked with drafting a plan to protect submerged shipwrecks and the area’s maritime legacy.

NOAA accepted a nomination for the marine sanctuary in March 2017, and in April announced the start of a multi-year designation phase, which includes detailed scoping and a public comment period. As part of the designation process, NOAA hosted a series of meetings this week — one in each of the four counties in the proposed boundaries — including the Oswego meeting.

More than a dozen residents and local officials provided comments to NOAA during a public session Wednesday night that lasted nearly an hour.

Port City Mayor Billy Barlow introduced NOAA officials and Oswego County Administrator Phil Church, who spearheaded the nomination process, at Wednesday’s meeting and called the proposed marine sanctuary an important opportunity to the city and the region.

“Right now in the city of Oswego we have a lot happening all at one time,” Barlow said, noting the downtown revitalization efforts are well underway and the city is working to revamp the waterfront. “To have this opportunity come up and to be able to work with NOAA, Oswego County and all of the neighboring counties to talk about what a marine sanctuary is and why it’s so important and unique and could be such an asset to the Oswego community has just been a great, great momentum builder.”

Barlow said a national marine sanctuary would be “the ultimate home run” for the Port City and surrounding area.

“We’ve had some base hits the last three years but I believe this is the ultimate home run, because what an asset and what an opportunity for a community like Oswego,” the mayor said. “I can’t stress enough how much community support I believe it has here in the city of Oswego and how much we’re looking forward to seeing the process move along.”

Dr. Robert Morgan, an Oswego-based family physician who described himself as a certified diver, said the area has a varied and rich history, calling the proposed national marine sanctuary a “tremendous site” and a “tremendous opportunity.”

“This is the perfect place for all this to happen,” Morgan said, pointing out he’s very much in support of the project. “Everything is going to be preserved and it’s not going to effect anything in a bad way.”

County Legislator Tom Drumm, D-Oswego, welcomed NOAA officials to the area and said there’s a lot of support locally for the marine sanctuary and officials would “absolutely love to see (it) come to fruition.” Drumm said there is “so much momentum” in the city from building on its history, pointing to efforts to create a national park at Fort Ontario.

“For years and years we’ve always talked about what a resource we have out here — some of us are blessed enough to be able to look out our window and we’re right on the lake — but I’ve always heard that we as electeds, and as a community more so, need to learn how to build on the lake, build on that momentum, build on that asset,” Drumm said. “I can think of no other more positive thing than something like this. The opportunity to highlight our history — like we’ve found some momentum doing — is certainly ripe for the picking.”

Village of Pulaski Deputy Mayor Jan Tighe spoke on behalf of the village, saying the mayor and board of trustees “would like to enthusiastically endorse the establishment of a marine sanctuary.”

“Based on the history of Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay marine sanctuary, we are certain that the establishment of a marine sanctuary will further enhance and preserve the history of our area, its natural resources and lead to sustainable and continued economic growth,” Tighe said.

Author and shipwreck diver Jim Kennard was one of a few speakers who wasn’t overwhelmingly in support of the project, said he was pleased there’s interest in highlighting local shipwrecks, but believes there are several misconceptions surrounding the proposed sanctuary.

Kennard said there were only a handful of shipwrecks that are within depths reachable by recreational divers, something he said is likely to limit diving tourism. He also said the shipwrecks are already protected by state and federal laws, and about half of the nearly 50 possible shipwrecks in the area no longer exist.

“Off of Oswego, I can tell you there isn’t that much left here,” Kennard said, pointing out the shipwrecks are distributed along the shoreline and federal funding would be best used if it was distributed throughout the communities.

Onondaga Nation General Counsel Joseph Heath, who grew up in Sandy Creek, pointed out the area is part of the homeland of the Onondaga Nation and that history should be recognized and incorporated into any marine sanctuary proposal.

“We just need to remember that they hunted here, fished, gathered plants for centuries before the Europeans,” Heath said. “To the Haudenosaunee and the Onondaga, the lake and the river are living relatives, and if we all began to think of our lakes and rivers in that way I think it would be a better way to approach some of the problems that we’re facing.”

Heath said Onondaga Nation is proud to support the effort to preserve the historic and pre-colonial area, including the wonderful sand dunes and wetlands that make up the eastern shore of Lake Ontario.

Oswego County Community Development, Tourism and Planning Director Dave Turner  also welcomed NOAA, and said he appreciates the opportunity that exists with the marine sanctuary. Turner said NOAA wouldn’t find another community that would be “as welcoming and cooperative” as Oswego County, adding the county tourism office would be a willing and able partner.

Operation Oswego County Deputy Director Austin Wheelock spoke on the potential economic opportunities of a potential marine sanctuary, such as the potential development of unmanned remotely operated underwater vehicles. Wheelock said the economic development organization recognizes the potential positives of a marine sanctuary, pointing to not only recreational businesses but also the potential for advanced manufacturing, research and development.

“Obviously this is going to be good for hotels and the hospitality industry as a whole,” Wheelock said. “But think outside the box and what sorts of new industries this could bring to our region that we don’t even have at this time.

More than a half-dozen others spoke in favor of the proposal at the hearing, including Pam Caraccioli on behalf of SUNY Oswego, who pointed out the college’s meteorology and other programs could benefit from partnerships with the marine sanctuary.

“We stand ready, we’re already a partner in this community and we would certainly be a partner in this,” Caraccioli said of the college.

Individuals can find more information on the marine sanctuary proposal, or submit comments online at https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/lake-ontario/. The public comment period ends July 31.

Following the comment period, NOAA is expected to spend the next 12 to 18 months developing draft proposals for the marine sanctuary.

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