OSWEGO — With federal officials crafting draft documents for the proposed Great Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary and up to two years before locals have another chance to weigh-in on the plan, local officials shared their hopes for what the sanctuary could become and what it could mean to the community.
Four years after a marine sanctuary was first proposed for Lake Ontario, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), which oversees a federal system of more than a dozen national marines sanctuaries, is leading a designation process and creating a draft management plan and other documents that, if designated, would ultimately govern the sanctuary.
Nominated by a coalition of local governments, the proposed Great Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary was largely modeled after other shipwreck-based sanctuaries, and in addition to speaking with local leaders, The Palladium-Times reached out to officials from other communities that have gone through the process to find out more about the designation procedures and outcomes.
Oswego County Administrator Phil Church, who led the nomination task force, said local officials started considering the possibility of a marine sanctuary when NOAA in 2015 opened up the nomination process for the first time in two decades.
“We researched the possibilities and we examined NOAA’s success in similar shipwreck sanctuaries such as Thunder Bay, Michigan and the Civil War Ironclad U.S.S. Monitor,” Church said earlier this year, noting officials also met with various stakeholders, including charter captains and representatives of the hospitality industry to gauge interest.
Though some locals see the sanctuary as a way to capitalize on shipwreck diving tourism, Church said it “goes beyond divers.” He said the sanctuary could impact local businesses, educators and heritage-based tourism.
“It has a pretty wide breadth of potential positive impacts,” Church said. “What we envisioned for the sanctuary was for the designation to be something that all the communities along the lakeshore could use to enhance tourism, local businesses and education, from kindergarten up through university programs and research.”
Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow said there is “limitless potential for Oswego” if a marine sanctuary designation comes to fruition, noting other areas with sanctuaries have “almost immediately” seen an increase in visitors.
“Oswego already has a rich nautical history and the marine sanctuary would highlight that and much more,” said Barlow, who, like many local leaders, sees a marine sanctuary as a potential boon to tourism and a catalyst for other economic growth.
Barlow said the Port City is in the perfect position, both geographically and as a community, to be the center of activity surrounding a marine sanctuary.
In 2017, the nomination task force submitted a more than 200-page document outlining their ideas for a local sanctuary and identifying six objectives, including preserving the region’s submerged maritime heritage and resources and increasing tourism and economic activities.
Time and time again, Church has said the proposed sanctuary would “focus on maritime heritage and shipwrecks in Lake Ontario,” and would not be environmentally focused like many other national marine sanctuaries. Local officials, including Church, have continually stated the final sanctuary shouldn’t detract from any economic or recreational activities in the region.
“We want it to enhance what we currently enjoy about the lake,” said Church, who started diving shipwrecks in the early 1990s.
The nomination task force and local leaders have said the proposed Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary is largely modeled after the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Lake Huron off the coast of Alpena, Michigan. Thunder Bay is also an underwater preserve that protects and showcases Great Lakes shipwrecks — similar to what Oswego officials would like to do.
Alpena Mayor Matt Waligora told The Palladium-Times he “couldn’t speak enough positive things about the sanctuary and everything that came with it.”
Waligora said the city of about 10,000 people was suffering financially during a global economic downtown when the marine sanctuary was established.
Waligora called the sanctuary a “blessing,” as it boosted tourism and positively impacted the local economy.
“We get tourists of all kinds,” he said. “Divers, photographers, videographers and scientists that come in and do dives and documentaries and a lot of things of that nature.”
In addition to the tourism component, Waligora said the sanctuary ties in with local education and has spurred underwater robotics competitions in the area and other spinoff activities.
Waligora said it’s difficult to say exactly what economic benefits were brought on by the marine sanctuary, but it’s easy to say it’s made a positive impact.
“We’ve seen more growth in the last 10 years in the city of Alpena than we had probably in the 20 to 25 years preceding that,” he said. “How much the marine sanctuary had to do with that it’s hard to say, but I’m sure it had an impact.”
Much like in Oswego, Waligora said there were early fears it could impact the large fishing community in the area, but “what it was in the end was a lot of unfounded fears.”
“There hasn’t been any negative impact for fishing or any other activities out on the Great Lakes, so it’s all just been a positive experience for us,” Waligora said. “It’s just been really a great experience and I almost can’t imagine where we would be today without them in the last 10 years.”
Receiving a final designation in July, the Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary in Maryland is the nation’s newest.
Charles County Maryland Administrator Mark Belton, who played a key role in the designation process as Maryland’s secretary of natural resources, said in addition to the fishing community, there were also concerns early on in Mallows Bay due to the sanctuary’s close proximity to several Naval bases, which largely drive the regional economy.
“They didn’t want this designation to, in anyway, give anyone a feeling that it could hurt business expansion or the Navy’s mission,” Belton said, noting NOAA provided four boundary options, and the agency and local stakeholders ultimately decided upon the smallest to avoid concerns about Naval operations.
Belton said throughout the process, NOAA was very responsive to the various stakeholder groups, and worked with the state and county to address concerns.
Though the Mallows Bay sanctuary is too fresh to know what the economic and local impact might be, Belton said he and other officials are hoping for a boost in tourism. Belton said overnight success is not an expectation, but as witnessed in Alpena, Michigan, a sanctuary could help the area become an attractive tourism destination.
One example of what local proponents of the Great Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary are hoping to avoid can be found in the Wisconsin-Lake Michigan proposed National Marine Sanctuary, which has been in the designation phase for almost five years.
Chad Pelishek, director of planning and development for the city of Sheboygan in Wisconsin, told The Palladium-Times the sanctuary was on track for a final designation when then-Governor Scott Walker pulled support and thereby blocked the sanctuary. Pelishek said a small, vocal minority used scare tactics to convince lakeshore property owners that a sanctuary would limit their rights to the water.
Wisconsin appears to be moving toward a designation again under a new governor, but there’s been no official movement.
When asked what advice he would have for locals interested in creating a national marine sanctuary, Pelishek said “be ready for a long haul.” Pelishek said “it’s just too long” and “it’s so hard to keep people excited” about something that’s been in the works for more than a half-decade.
“The challenge, I think is, (NOAA) put the pressure on the local communities to keep the excitement and the engagement happening,” Pelishek said. “But when this thing drags out for anything more than three to five years, I mean how do you continue to keep people excited about that, because they’ve moved on in life.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo pledged his support for the Lake Ontario sanctuary in a December 2016 letter to NOAA, and various other leaders, including Rep. John Katko, R-Camillus, and Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica, have expressed support for the sanctuary.