Officials tout preservation of shipwrecks as one of many benefits Great Lakes designation would give city
Ellen Brody told the story of the steamer Senator to a crowd of more than 50 people at Port Washington City Hall Tuesday.
It was a ship built in 1896 in Michigan, she said, and it sailed the Great Lakes for years. On Oct. 31, 1929 — Halloween — it left Milwaukee bound for Detroit but in dense fog it was struck by the Marquette, an ore carrier.
“The Senator did not fare well,” Brody said. It sank off Port Washington and between seven and 10 of its 31 crew members were lost.
The ship, which was found by divers in 450 to 500 feet of water in 2005, was carrying 250 to 260 new Nash automobiles, she said.
“It makes you kind of wonder, what do those automobiles look like today,” Brody said. “My guess is they’re extremely well preserved.”
The cold, deep waters of Lake Michigan help preserve shipwrecks, said Brody, and it’s the envy of her colleagues at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
That environment, along with the number of wrecks in the waters between Port Washington and Two Rivers, are among the reasons the 875 square mile area is being considered as a national marine sanctuary by NOAA.
The proposed sanctuary is one of two potential sites listed on an inventory by the agency.
A 2008 study by the Wisconsin State Historical Society shows the area has 34 known shipwrecks, including two of the oldest in Wisconsin, said Brody, NOAA’s regional coordinator for the Great Lakes. Fourteen of the wrecks are intact, and four have standing masts, which is unusual, she said.
Fifteen of these wrecks are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, she added.
“What’s not on this list is the other reason for the nomination, the opportunity for new discoveries,” Brody said.
Sanctuaries are a lot like national parks, except they’re underwater, Brody told the crowd. They run the gamut from areas with protected coral reefs to habitat for humpback whales, and they range in size from 200 square miles to 90,000 square miles.
“Sanctuaries vary greatly,” she said.
The primary reason for a sanctuary is to protect a resource, and in the case of the proposed Port-to-Two Rivers sanctuary, it’s to protect shipwrecks, she said.
They are also intended to be sources of education and outreach, research and monitoring and community engagement, she said.
While many people fear that sanctuaries will be kept off limits, that’s not the case, Brody said.
“That is not the case in national marine sanctuaries,” she said.
Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena, Mich., the only Great Lakes sanctuary, has no restrictions on fishing or diving, Brody said, adding it’s likely that similar rules would be enforced if a Port-to-Two Rivers sanctuary is approved.
The basic rules are that people cannot move or take artifacts from the wrecks, she said.
“Enforcement’s tough,” she conceded, noting NOAA depends on the Coast Guard and Department of Natural Resources to enforce the rules in Michigan.
Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary on Lake Huron was designated a sanctuary in 2000, and was recently expanded from 448 square miles to 4,300 square miles, Brody said.
“We have deep shipwrecks, shallow shipwrecks,” she said. “Some are intact. Some are broken up. They all have stories.”
A buoy program installs mooring buoys on some of the wrecks, giving boaters somewhere to tie up so they don’t cast nets or drop anchors on the shipwrecks, damaging them, she said.
The visitor’s center at Thunder Bay is the largest of the facilities at a NOAA sanctuary, Brody said, noting not all sanctuaries have such facilities.
In the case of the proposed Port-to-Two Rivers sanctuary, she said, NOAA would have a presence in each of the communities — and probably not have a visitor’s center in each one.
Community support and involvement is an important element, Brody said.
A marine sanctuary is a destination, Brody added, noting Alpena, a community of 10,000 people, had almost 100,000 visitors in 2014.
“The whole identity of Alpena has changed,” she said. “They no longer consider themselves an industrial town.”
Instead, they consider the community a tourist destination, she said.
Brody warned the crowd that just because the local area is on the inventory for consideration to become a sanctuary, it won’t necessarily occur.
“I will go out on a limb and say I believe we will (move forward with the process),” she said, primarily because the application put forth by Port Washington, Sheboygan, Manitowoc and Two Rivers is “very persuasive.”
One woman questioned why NOAA wouldn’t want to add an area as rich in wrecks and history to its sanctuaries.
“You’d think with such a rich shipwreck history, NOAA would jump on it,” she said.
The long process ensures success for the sanctuaries, Brody said.
“It’s pretty new,” she said. “We’re being deliberate. We’re being careful. The product at the end is strong.”
“Be patient,” Brody told the crowd, noting that once an area is selected for designation, the process can take several years. “I will be your advocate.”