Four Lake Ontario Counties Join Together to Submit Application for National Marine Sanctuary

Submerged shipwrecks such as the St. Peter, 120 feet deep in the Lake Ontario waters off Pultneyville, would be promoted and preserved through the designation of a Great Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary. The 136-foot long schooner sank in 1898.

Submerged shipwrecks such as the St. Peter, 120 feet deep in the Lake Ontario waters off Pultneyville, would be promoted and preserved through the designation of a Great Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary. The 136-foot long schooner sank in 1898.

SYRACUSE – Representatives of four Lake Ontario counties announced today (Sept. 4) that they are pursuing a nomination to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to nominate southeastern Lake Ontario as a National Marine Sanctuary.

Submerged shipwrecks such as the St. Peter, 120 feet deep in the Lake Ontario waters off Pultneyville, would be promoted and preserved through the designation of a Great Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary. The 136-foot long schooner sank in 1898.
Submerged shipwrecks such as the St. Peter, 120 feet deep in the Lake Ontario waters off Pultneyville, would be promoted and preserved through the designation of a Great Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary. The 136-foot long schooner sank in 1898.

“Southeastern Lake Ontario is eligible for consideration due to the age, type and preserved state of numerous historic shipwrecks and many other features,” said Oswego County Administrator Phil Church, who acted as the emcee for the announcement. “Our goal in seeking an NMS designation is to establish international recognition for the unique features of the region and increase economic, recreational, scientific research and educational activities.”

Church is also the chair of a task force created by Kevin Gardner, chair of the Oswego County Legislature, and Oswego Mayor Tom Gillen charged with the development of the nomination.

The announcement was made at the Lakes of NY exhibit at the New York State Fair by representatives of Oswego, Jefferson, Cayuga and Wayne counties and the city of Oswego. National marine sanctuaries are designated by the federal government and are intended to increase responsible visitation and use of unique resources by visitors, anglers, divers, scientists, researchers, historians and educators. They are administered by the NOAA.

View Lake Ontario NMS map

The nomination process will take several months to complete. Meetings with stakeholders will be held in all four counties “because the community’s input into this nomination is vitally important,” Church said.

“Picture in your mind the Hawaiian Islands, the Florida Keys, the Civil War’s ironclad USS Monitor, or the beauty of Thunder Bay,” Church told the crowd. “These names and places are familiar to you and people worldwide because they are part of the United States system of 14 national marine sanctuaries.”

“Today we are here to announce a coordinated regional effort to nominate a portion of Great Lake Ontario to become a national marine sanctuary,” he continued. “Wayne County, Cayuga County and Jefferson County have joined us in this project. Central New York Regional Planning and the H. Lee White Maritime Museum at Oswego are also integral members of this task force.”

They are also grateful for the participation of New York Sea Grant and for Gov. Cuomo’s assignment to the project of state agencies such as the DEC’s bureau of fisheries and natural resources, the Department of State and the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Earlier in the day, Church received word that Syracuse University and SUNY Oswego have pledged to support the project.

“Why does our Great Lake deserve to be listed along side of the Florida Keys and Thunder Bay? The answer is southeastern Lake Ontario is eligible based on the age, type and preserved state of the numerous historic shipwrecks and may other cultural and ecological features of the region,” Church explained.

One example, he said, is the 1898 wreck of the St. Peter, which is already on the National Register of Historic Places. There are many, many out there, he added.

“Our goal in seeking a sanctuary designation is to establish international recognition with the unique features of this region, to preserve our heritage and to increase economic, recreational, educational and scientific research activities here in this region,” Church said.

Church emphasized that “the term ‘sanctuary’ does not mean an off-limits preserve.  In our case it means just the opposite – to promote and increase responsible visitation, understanding and appreciation of this unique area without interfering with the lake’s commercial and recreational activities.”

Officials from the four counties, the city of Oswego, state and federal representatives, and other agencies are working together to develop the Great Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary proposal. The application is based on a similar Great Lakes model, the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena, Michigan, where there have been significant economic benefits to the region.

It’s estimated that Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary on Lake Huron annually generates in excess of $100 million to the regional economy and supports more than 1,500 jobs. The visitor center for Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is a major tourism destination for the region, hosting approximately 60,000 visitors annually.

Church said he sees the NMS impact on this region being similar – if not greater.

Alpena is a city of only 11,000 people and isn’t as centrally located as Oswego, he noted.

Congressman John Katko supports the program. It will grow tourism and boost the economy while preserving some of our region’s most historic and unique natural resources, the congressman’s representative said.

Assemblyman Robert Oaks, “the National Marine Sanctuary designation for our region would create a path toward preserving our Lake Ontario history and strengthening tourism opportunities for both local residents and visitors alike.”

Hardly ever do most people think about what’s underneath Lake Ontario’s waters, he said.

“What this is about is designating and preserving history and designating this as a sanctuary to say, ‘the history of Lake Ontario is more than what’s on its waters, it’s what beneath it as well. It tells the story of people perhaps being in battle, people moving from one area to another, it tells the story of the economics that drove things here years ago. That’s what we can do by creating this together. I am so pleased to be a part of this; to help preserve and create a future, which is shaped by our past.”

“This is a grass-roots initiative with a huge potential to transform our region,” said Oswego County Legislature Chairman Kevin Gardner.  “Benefits to local communities could include new jobs, economic gains through new investments in diving and angling charters, tour operations, interpretive centers and museums, increased visitation to local businesses, and research opportunities for colleges and secondary schools. We can do this while continuing to enjoy all of the commercial and recreational benefits of living near Lake Ontario.”

Few people know of or appreciate the historic and cultural resources that lie beneath the water, he added.

He has enjoyed working with officials from the other counties and looks forward to making the project a reality.

“I was lucky enough to have grown up on Lake Ontario. I was born and raised in Oswego,” said Oswego Mayor Gillen. “We thought it was just a wonderful place for us. Now, we’re opening it up to everyone.”

Oswego is probably the best kept secret in New York State, the mayor added.

“As the site of the Great Lake Ontario Marine Sanctuary, the city of Oswego welcomes visitors to experience the beauty and history of Oswego,” Gillen said. “The home of America’s oldest freshwater port, Oswego has been the focus of military conflict and conquest, a site of record trade revenue, and a significant part in the history of American expansion, industrialism and shipping. Countless shipwrecks still rest in the deep cold waters of Lake Ontario and offer an incredible opportunity for historical and recreational diving as well as fishing and boating.”

The formation of a tourism economy based around shipwreck history and diving would positively impact not only the city, but the entire region, the mayor said.

“We’ve been around for centuries.  We were the center of the fur trade back in the 17th century. We’ve been through a number of wars, the American Revolution, the War of 1812 – we’re a big part of America’s history. And, with this, we’re a big part of America’s future! This opportunity is compelling and we are excited to support and embrace this regional initiative.”

“Wayne County is proud to join with Cayuga, Oswego and Jefferson counties in this wonderful cooperative initiative. Becoming a part of the National Marine Sanctuary system will help us guarantee that such national treasures as the St. Peter will be preserved and protected,” said Steve LeRoy, vice chairman of the Wayne County Board of Supervisors. “This 135-foot coal laden schooner left Oswego Harbor bound for Toledo and was lost in a winter blizzard in 1898 and came to rest in 117 feet of water off the hamlet of Pultneyville in Wayne County (only the captain survived). The wreck, its artifacts and the story that goes with it, are stellar examples of Lake Ontario’s unique maritime history. The number one tourist attraction in Wayne County is our historical lighthouse museum located in Sodus Point. Rich with Lake Ontario’s nautical past, it is visited by thousands each year. Receiving the Great Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary designation will help to ensure that our region’s greatest natural and cultural resource is safeguarded for generations to come. Wayne County enthusiastically joins with the other counties to support this important endeavor!”

“NOAA’s commitment to these National Marine Sanctuaries provides the basis for not only healthy ecosystems, but also thriving recreation, tourism and commercial activities that drive coastal economies through investment in visitor centers and collaborations with local organizations and stakeholders,” said Jean B. Gleisner, program manager for the CNY Regional Planning and Development Board.

She visited Thunder Bay as an introduction to the nomination process. Any coastal community can submit a nomination. But not every community gets an invitation from NOAA.

“As a region, we are extremely fortunate to have an opportunity to submit a nomination to NOAA for designation of Lake Ontario as a National Maritime Heritage Sanctuary. If we work together in support of this initiative, it will bring unprecedented growth in economic opportunity that is founded on preservation and conservation of our region’s significant collection of natural and cultural resources.”

National Marine Sanctuaries might not be too well-known to many people, said Reed Bohne, regional director NOAA.

“Thunder Bay is a great example of the things we hope may develop if the sanctuary is designated here,” he said. “It began with a bit of opposition. But it has become a real beacon for the rest of the sanctuary system in how to grow and engage communities in the preservation and conservation of heritage resources.”

The sanctuary could include Lake Ontario waters from the western boundary of Wayne County to the international border in Lake Ontario and east to Cape Vincent in Jefferson County, Bohne noted.

NOAA would determine the boundaries during the review process, which will involve extensive public participation.

If approved by NOAA, the Great Lake Ontario NMS would be part of a collection of a very few spectacular natural settings in the U.S. stretching from the Olympic Coast of Washington State, to Lake Huron, Stellwagen Bank in Maine, the Florida Keys, and American Samoa in Hawaii.

“I urge all of you to join in this campaign. Build a nomination, which I know is going to be extremely strong and let us work together to make this a reality,” Bohne said.

After they receive a nomination, it goes through a review process at NOAA, If successful, it’s placed in an inventory of potential areas for designation.

“The timing then of what sites NOAA may select to move forward is uncertain right now,” Bohne said. “We only have two sites right now that are in the inventory. We expect quite a few more, particularly from the Great Lakes.”

Public meetings will be held across the four counties during September and October to gather input from Lake Ontario fishing charters, marinas and other waterfront businesses, waterfront property owners, environmental groups, elected officials and other stakeholder groups.

Additional information about the Great Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary application is available at

Information about National Marine Sanctuaries is available at