New National Marine Sanctuary Will Protect Maryland’s ‘Ghost Fleet’

Hundreds of abandoned vessels have merged with the environment in Mallows Bay

The historic shipwrecks of Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary provide habitat for birds and other wildlife. Matt McIntosh/NOAA

In a small bay of the Potomac River, just a short drive from Washington, D.C., sit the crumbling remains of more than 200 abandoned ships. Some date all the way back to the Civil War; many were hastily constructed during World War I. And now, the waters surrounding the so-called “Ghost Fleet” of Mallows Bay have been declared a national marine sanctuary.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which announced the Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary this week, the area spans 18 square miles and was designated “to protect and conserve the shipwrecks and cultural heritage resources, as well as to foster education and research partnerships, and to increase opportunities for public access, tourism and economic development.” This is the first time that a national marine sanctuary has been declared since 2000, when the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary received its designation, reports Nina Strochlic of National Geographic.

More than 100 vessels in Mallows Bay are wooden steamships, part of President Woodrow Wilson’s campaign to construct a robust fleet of cargo ships during the Great War, a push that came in the wake of the sinking of the steamship Lusitania by a German U-boat. Some 40 shipyards in 17 states sprang into action to meet the government’s tight deadline—1,000 ships within 18 months, according to Atlas Obscura—but the vessels were not well-constructed. None sailed to Europe during the war, and the fleet was ultimately brought to the Potomac River to be salvaged for scrap metal. A local company, Strochlic reports, eventually abandoned the ships in Mallows Bay.

The Ghost Fleet may not have a particularly valorous history, but according to the NOAA, the watery ruins reflect “the massive national wartime effort that drove the expansion and economic development of communities and related maritime service industries.” Over the years, the shipwrecks have merged with the natural environment, and are now home to a bevy of flora and fauna, including fish, beavers and osprey. The area encompassed by the new sanctuary also includes Native American archaeological sites dating back 12,000 years.

“There’s good reason that the Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary will be the first national marine sanctuary created in the last two decades — it’s a unique blend of historical, recreational and habitat resources with strong public support for its protection,” Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland said in a statement.

The state of Maryland first nominated Mallows Bay for marine sanctuary status in 2014. Now, the state, the NOAA and Charles County, where the sanctuary is located, will manage the site jointly. The sanctuary designation is expected to take effect after 45 days of Congressional session, once the action is published in the Federal Register.

“For years, we have been working with federal, state, and local partners to establish a National Marine Sanctuary in Mallows Bay. Today, that hard work becomes a reality,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland on Monday. “This is a win-win for Maryland, ensuring that this unique area—which boasts unbelievable history and important wildlife—is preserved for future generations.”

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