OSWEGO, NY – Community leaders and members of the public gathered in Oswego to hear of the many possible benefits of establishing a National Marine Sanctuary for a southeastern portion of Lake Ontario.
The presentation came from Jefferson Grey, the superintendent of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Michigan, the model for what Lake Ontario’s NMS would be based on.
County Administrator Phil Church, who also serves as chairman on the National Marine Sanctuary Task Force, explained the unique opportunity the area has been given as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is accepting nominations to add new National Marine Sanctuaries around the world.
This opportunity quickly sprung the counties of Oswego, Jefferson, Cayuga and Wayne into action to submit a proposal to add a 193-mile stretch of Lake Ontario shoreline to the list currently composed of 15 other NMS throughout the world.
While some NMS are designated by NOAA to protect marine species and ecologies, the Great Lake Ontario NMS will follow suit of the Thunder Bay NMS in protecting and preserving “submerged cultural resources.”
“We have the opportunity to become a National Marine Sanctuary because of the unique underwater resources we have here,” said Church.
Those resources include 17 shipwrecks and one aircraft whose locations are known within the nomination area. However, there is belief based on vessel loss reports and news reports that indicate the possibility of 52 shipwrecks and two aircraft that may additionally be found in the nomination area.
Of the known shipwrecks in the area, two have been recognized with national and state designations including the National Register of Historic Places and the New York State Submerged Cultural Preserve and Dive Site. It is probable that several of the known shipwrecks could be eligible for listing as well.
Grey explained that because of the cold, fresh water found in the Great Lakes, the preservation of shipwrecks “is second to none,” giving these sites a level of preservation better than most others in the world.
The proposed sanctuary will find the city of Oswego at its geographic center that encompasses a 193-mile stretch of shoreline reaching the counties of Oswego, Jefferson, Cayuga and Wayne and include portions of the historic maritime highways of the St. Lawrence River and the Erie-Oswego Canal.
“These sites deserve not just our recognition, but our protection,” said Church. He explained that he was excited to have Grey present to “hear about the Thunder Bay NMS and start imagining the possibilities here.”
Grey drew many similar comparisons from the city that houses the Thunder Bay NMS (Alpena, MIich.) to the areas centering Oswego County that hope to one day home the Great Lake Ontario NMS.
As Michigan saw a sudden loss of the automotive industry and the city of Alpena specifically took large losses from paper mills and other industrial work closing, the town with a population of 10,000 people and a county of 30,000 people began viewing the possibility of a NMS as a way to “bring new economic life to our area,” said Grey.
Despite a very controversial start with 70% of the city originally voting no to establishing a NMS, the Thunder Bay NMS was created and after a five-year review, the once 450-square-mile sanctuary was expanded to a 4,300 square mile sanctuary based on the sanctuary’s abundant success.
Grey explained that those who were once the strongest opposed to the idea of a NMS based on fears of impact on how the site would be used, are now perhaps the sanctuary’s biggest supporters and even find themselves on the community based management team.
Those people such as fisherman, divers, kayakers, those who most frequently use the water are those who initially opposed the sanctuary, but after it’s implementation are now most supportive.
“The proposed NMS will not establish regulations on commercial and recreational fishing, shoreline development, or commercial shipping, nor establish new fees or new restrictions on recreational diving,” explained Church.
What the Great Lake Ontario NMS is hopeful to do, as seen at the Thunder Bay NMS, is bring economic and tourism growth to all counties involved, to expand regional research and bring educational programs and opportunities to all levels of education, to build and strengthen partnerships on all levels, all while preserving the region’s rich maritime history and simultaneously building a strong community bond.
Grey explained how the Thunder Bay NMS has become a destination for researchers from all over the world including Dr. Robert Ballard, most known for finding the Titanic, and Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the famous Jacques Cousteau, who then hired a student from Thunder Bay NMS to his staff.
Companies have been frequent at Thunder Bay NMS to test new technologies and companies such as SONY and Intel have used the sanctuary and local students to create a promotional video with educational ties.
“Our educational programs at Thunder Bay are what I’m most proud of,” said Grey.
With a focus on STEM learning the sanctuary provides students from all over ample opportunities to learn using hands on, interactive, unique approaches to education.
The Robotics program which started with one team building a robotic operated vehicle to compete in a national competition has since expanded to more than 50 schools throughout the state with a regional competition held at Thunder Bay NMS before moving on to nationals, and even hosted an international competition bringing competitors from all over the world to Thunder Bay.
The sanctuary, paired with a 20,000-square-foot welcome center has proven vital in providing exponential economic growth for the region.
Together, the welcome center and NMS aside from creating abundant jobs, have provided a new branding to boost tourism and the business community bringing opportunities for companies to make investments in the region, new product development, and job recruitment for newly developed fields specific to the sanctuary and its needs.
The welcome center is a commonly visited tourist destination that provides people the opportunity to discover other resources of the region to visit and the sanctuary is a true community facility, home to more than just exhibits but also host to school field trips, community events, meetings, concerts, and even weddings, Grey explained.
While the Thunder Bay NMS has proven to be an economic lifesaver for the region, it has spurred much more than that in the form of community togetherness.
Based largely on community involvement, the Thunder Bay NMS has given people access to explore and engage in the area’s unique history creating more community pride when they begin to learn their history, Grey said.
“We make strong connections through access and relevance, it creates a public desire to take action. People protect what they value,” he said.
As an example, Grey told how a local youth lacrosse team officially changed their name from the “Wildcats” to the “Thunder Bay Wrecks” because the young kids felt such a strong connection to their NMS.
“These are underwater books we can learn the past from,” said Grey. “The goal is really having a great place to live, work and visit.”
The goal is the same for the Great Lake Ontario NMS, hopeful to bring the area’s strong sense of maritime history to the forefront while preserving historical underwater sites and spurring economic and tourism development.
“For our nomination to succeed, the process begins with community support,” urged Church.
Anyone is able to submit a letter of support for the Great Lake Ontario NMS to be included in the nomination documents by June 30 to the Office of the County Administration ATTN: Philip Church, NMS Task Force Chairman.