All week long, New Yorkers have been weighing in on a proposed project that would help preserve some of the oldest shipwrecks in the Great Lakes. The federal government is considering creating a 1,700-square-mile national marine sanctuary in the southeastern portion of Lake Ontario. And as part of the designation process, federal officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) spent time visiting the communities that stand to be impacted by the transformative project.
The excitement at the Lake Ontario Conference Center in Oswego was palpable as NOAA officials explained what has happened in the communities where the 13 existing national marine sanctuaries are located. Tourism skyrockets, new educational programs are created, and priceless historic resources are preserved.
Surrounded by banners representing the 13 sanctuaries, Oswego County Administrator Phil Church, who led the nomination process, told the crowd that securing this designation would put the region on the map.
"They come because they're fascinated by the subject and it's part of the draw to the area, and a sanctuary here puts us - as you can see - in elite company around the world," Chuch said.
Residents, government leaders, and other community stakeholders voiced strong, unequivocal support for the designation. Some have expressed concern about the potential disruption from the project to an area where commercial fishing and shipping are essential to the economy. But Ellen Brody, the Great Lakes Regional Coordinator for NOAA, says the term sanctuary may be misleading.
"It leads some people to think that these are areas that are off limits to people - people can't use," Brody said. "I want to reassure you that we do promote people using sanctuaries in fishing, kayaking, sailing and other forms."
In fact, Joe Hoyt, National Maritime Heritage Coordinator for NOAA, said the research and tourism that come along with a marine sanctuary will actually increase access to the water and what lies beneath. Hoyt says the goal is both to conserve these shipwreckes but also to tell their stories - and there's no shortage of subject material.
"This area was the first place that the wonder that is the Great Lakes became known to the rest of the word," Hoyt said. "This is where French explorers and early English settlers first understood what an incredible ecoystem was available in this massive freshwater resource. Because of it's position geographically and the early colonization of this country, the resources that are here are just a bit older than they are in the rest of the Great Lakes. It's really uniqe in that sense."
As the designation moves forward, some of those at the meeting, like Jim Kennard, urged NOAA to make sure that all four counties that collaborated on the nomination, Oswego, Jefferson, Cayuga, and Wayne, benefit from it.
"If you focus on one community, you're going to pull people away from all of the other communities," Kennard said. "These historical societies and lighthouses along the southern shore of Lake Ontario, they're hurting for funds."
Although the designation is still under review, NOAA officials say it is their expectation that this marine sanctuary will be established. But that won't happen for another 2-3 years.