OSWEGO — The proposed Lake Ontario national marine sanctuary is described as a “shipwreck sanctuary” that would protect the maritime heritage of lakeshore communities, and the process is moving forward as federal officials plan to start crafting draft proposals in the coming months.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) recently entered the designation process for the proposed 1,700-square-mile Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary, which would protect more than 20 known shipwrecks and potentially dozens yet to be discovered. Public comment is open until July 31, and NOAA officials then plan to create documents over the next 12 to 18 months before gathering more community input on the proposed sanctuary.
County Administrator Phil Church said many national marine sanctuaries are environmentally focused, but the proposed Lake Ontario sanctuary is centered on shipwrecks, which range from 1780 to 1954, and the area’s maritime heritage.
Plans for the Lake Ontario marine sanctuary are largely modeled after the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena, Michigan. According to a 2005 study, the Thunder Bay sanctuary, established in 2000, has created more than 1,000 jobs and has a nearly $100 million economic impact on the area.
Mayor Billy Barlow expressed excitement about the information NOAA officials presented this week, including highlights of the positive environmental and economic benefits a marine sanctuary off the shore of Lake Ontario could bring to the entire region. Barlow said with significant progress already happening in the city, including waterfront developments, the community is finally capitalizing on its waterfront assets.
“Looking at the location of ship wrecks and potential diving locations, I believe the city of Oswego is positioned perfectly to be at the center of spinoff activity relating to the marine sanctuary,” Barlow said Thursday. “A marine sanctuary would further highlight our waterfront, history and many other components to our community and would undoubtedly be economically transformative for our tourism industry.”
Ellen Brody, Great Lakes regional coordinator for NOOA, said there appeared to be “a great deal of excitement” in Oswego related to the marine sanctuary proposal and called it “gratifying” to hear from a cross-section of the community Wednesday.
“It gave us some good ideas about the beginning of what our proposal could look like,” Brody said. “Every sanctuary is different, because every place is different.”
Officials said the marine sanctuary program is aimed at protecting resources, education and outreach, research and monitoring and community engagement.
NOAA is “at the very beginning” of its process for designating a marine sanctuary, Brody said, and encouraged people to learn more about the program and continue sharing their aspirations for what the marine sanctuary and the partnership between the agency and local communities could become.
Brody said the agency would soon start developing draft documents, including environmental impact statements, management plans and proposed regulations for the proposed sanctuary. Officials said alternatives would be offered for various portions of the plan.
Members of the four-county marine sanctuary task force adopted several goals as part of the nomination, with the preservation of the region’s submerged maritime heritage resources at the forefront. Church said the task force noted a marine sanctuary ultimately should “not impede on commercial or recreational uses of the waters,” such as the Port of Oswego Authority and the sport fishing industry.
Brody said starting the designation process is a “monumental step,” and noted there are sanctuary nominations in NOAA’s inventory that have not yet overcome that hurdle. There are potential obstacles along the way, Brody said, but it is NOAA’s objective to establish a national marine sanctuary.
“That is our goal and that’s why we started this process,” Brody said of creating a marine sanctuary. “As we go through this process, we hope that at the end we have a national marine sanctuary. That’s why we’re doing this. We felt it was important enough that (the four-county nomination task force) demonstrated the national significance and community support, that we wanted to get a marine sanctuary here.”
NOAA officials plan to work with the local nomination documents and public comments, Brody said, but still must undertake their own research and assessment of the area before formulating a plan.
Following the release of the draft documents and another round of public comments, state and congressional officials can weigh-in on the plan before the sanctuary is finalized.