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Lake Michigan Could Become Home To National Marine Sanctuary

National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration Seeking Public Comment On 1,075-Square-Mile Zone

Home shipwreck
Built in 1843 the schooner, Home, is one of the oldest shipwrecks discovered in Wisconsin. Tamara Thomsen/Wisconsin Historical Society

A 1,075-square-mile area of Lake Michigan could become a national marine sanctuary.

Pending the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s final designation and a public comment period, the Wisconsin–Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary would be only the second sanctuary in the Great Lakes and the first in the nation since 2000.

The zone is just off the shores of Manitowoc, Sheboygan and Ozaukee counties and “would protect 37 shipwrecks and related underwater cultural resources that possess exceptional historic, archaeological, and recreational value,” according to the NOAA drafted plans.

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Map of proposed boundaries for the Wisconsin–Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The state of Wisconsin nominated the proposed sanctuary in 2014, according to the NOAA, and the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc is a lead organization seeking the designation along with the NOAA.

“It turns the ships from just inanimate objects on the bottom of the lake into things that tell a story. The story of human migration. The story of, often, human tragedies. The story of the commercial activity that continues on the lake today,” said Rolf Johnson, the maritime museum’s CEO.

In 2015, the NOAA announced it would work to have the Lake Michigan zone designated a sanctuary. Another area in the Atlantic Ocean off the shores of Maryland is also being considered. Both were chosen because of historic shipwrecks.

Russ Green, a NOAA regional coordinator, said one known wreck, called Gallinipper, dates back to 1833; another, the Home, dates to 1843, both occurred off the shores of Manitowoc County.

“There are 37 known shipwrecks in the proposed sanctuary,” Green said. “There are maybe 80 yet to be discovered, so there’s lots of potential for exploration.”

Even though much of the Great Lakes aren’t home to sanctuaries, Green said there are potentially numerous shipwrecks yet to be discovered. “Estimates range from 6,000 to 8,000 Great Lakes-wide.”

The other Great Lakes marine sanctuary, the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, is in Lake Huron.

There will be four public meetings in March about the proposal, and public comments can be submitted online. Public comment on the proposal is open until the end of March.

If the sanctuary is designated, Green said anyone who plunders a wreck would face enhanced penalties. State law already prohibits stealing from a sunken ship.

Green said it may take a year before a decision is made on the proposed Lake Michigan sanctuary.

The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is a trustee for the network of 13 national marine sanctuaries and two marine national monuments, according to NOAA.

Editor’s Note: This story was corrected to state the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration must designate the sanctuary, not Congress.

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