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Proposed Lake Erie National Marine Sanctuary would be an underwater shipwreck museum, advocates say

A beach on Lake Erie on a sunny, summer day.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
If approved, the Lake Erie Quadrangle Sanctuary would cover roughly 740 square miles — most of Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie waters, excluding Presque Isle Bay, the channel connecting the bay to the lake, and privately owned water lots.

On the Lake Erie beaches of Presque Isle State Park on a recent summer day, children ran and played in the sand and water. A man walking on the beach used a metal detector to hunt for buried objects in the sand.

There was a light wind, making small waves in the vast expanse of blue-green water that stretches to Canada.

It’s hard to imagine on a sunny day, but under these waters likely lie hundreds of shipwrecks.

The vast number of wrecks is one reason the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is proposing a National Marine Sanctuary here.

What is a National Marine Sanctuary? Think of it as an underwater national park, said Ellen Brody, Great Lakes Regional coordinator for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

“National marine sanctuaries are really some of the most extraordinary ocean and Great Lakes places,” Brody said. Other National Marine Sanctuaries are home to coral reefs, humpback whales, or kelp forests, Brody added, but can also be home to cultural and historical resources such as shipwrecks.

If approved, the Lake Erie Quadrangle Sanctuary would cover roughly 740 square miles — most of Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie waters, excluding Presque Isle Bay, the channel connecting the bay to the lake, and privately owned water lots.

A sanctuary would likely mean a visitors center (somewhere on land), Brody said, to educate visitors about the Lake, as well as more NOAA researchers on the Lake.

Advocates say the National Marine Sanctuary designation would help preserve those wrecks, as well as create a comprehensive plan to identify and preserve other as yet unknown vessels on the Lake bottom. Backers of the proposal also say the region has a rich maritime heritage that the Sanctuary designation would recognize, such as shipbuilding and serving as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The exact number of shipwrecks in these waters isn’t known, but historical records say 196 vessels might have sunk within the proposed sanctuary area, according to a nomination application. About 35 wrecks in the area have been identified.

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“On the bottom of Lake Erie in general and within this proposed Quadrangle Sanctuary in particular, there's kind of a museum of these vessels,” said Ben Ford, a professor of anthropology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who also works with the Pennsylvania Archeology Shipwreck Survey Team.

Lake Erie’s location and relatively shallow waters mean ships here can be subject to sudden and severe storms.

The exact number of wrecks is unclear, as the lake hasn’t been fully surveyed, and there aren’t records of every vessel that perished, said David Boughton, a former maritime educator with Pennsylvania Sea Grant, which is part of NOAA.

The designation process typically takes between three and five years. It kicked off earlier this summer with meetings for the public to comment on the proposal.

Boughton said he hopes the sanctuary designation is successful and believes it can be an economic boon to Erie and the surrounding region.

“There's a whole world of underwater that, you know, people don't have access to. And there's a fascination about it that can be harnessed to generate appreciation of it and be an economic driver for the region.”

People have generally been supportive of the idea, said Erie Mayor Joe Schember, a Democrat.

He believes the sanctuary designation would bring economic benefits, in addition to highlighting the community’s heritage. The proposal also has the support of a number of other local officials, as well as tourism, maritime, and history groups.

“It's highlighting the national significance of the area's maritime history and expands upon our other efforts, local and statewide, to create additional educational, scientific and recreational opportunities for not just our visitors but for our residents, too,” said Christine Temple, director of communications for VisitErie.

The blue waters of Lake Erie on a sunny summer day. There are a few people on the beach nearby.
Kate Giammarise
90.5 WESA
Lake Erie, as seen from Presque Isle State Park, on August 22, 2023. A proposal would designate part of the lake as a National Marine Sanctuary.

There have been concerns from some fishing and boating groups about what the sanctuary would mean, said NOAA’s Brody.

They would be able to use the lake as they have been, she said.

“In some ways the term ‘sanctuary’ is unfortunate because it leads some people to believe that there's not multiple use in these areas. But in fact, our program does promote public access. We want people to use the sanctuaries responsibly,” Brody said.

Erie County Executive Brenton Davis, a Republican, said he’s still doing his due diligence on the proposal.

“We don’t want it to be able to hinder anything we want to do economically,” Davis said. “That doesn’t seem to be the case, but I think with anything with the federal government, you have to be a little leery.”

Davis and other local officials plan to travel to Michigan this fall to see a National Marine Sanctuary there, he said.

Hundreds of miles away from Erie, on another Great Lake, is the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, based in Alpena, Michigan.

Alpena Mayor Matt Waligora said there was initially resistance from some locals there to the idea of the National Marine Sanctuary.

“The average person, when someone says the federal government's moving in ... you know, they tend to tense up a little bit,” Waligora said with a laugh.

Despite those initial concerns, Waligora said it’s been very positive for his small community in northeastern Michigan, on the shore of Lake Huron. The sanctuary has been good for businesses, but has also given locals a deeper appreciation for what’s been in their own backyards.

“Now, people are actually more aware of what's out there, so it's pretty cool,” he said.

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.