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Marine sanctuary could help preserve Lake Michigan shipwrecks

Estimated 1,500 shipwrecks in Lake Michigan
Posted at 6:56 PM, Mar 16, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-16 19:56:10-04

An estimated 1,500 shipwrecks rest at the bottom of Lake Michigan, many of which are still undiscovered, and a new proposal will help protect some of those historic sites by turning a portion of the lake into a national marine sanctuary.

The proposal by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would designate a roughly 1,000-square mile area in Lake Michigan as a sanctuary specifically for shipwrecks.

The area in question has about 37 known shipwrecks, but potentially dozens more that have yet to be discovered.

Divers recently swam to one of the more well-known shipwrecks near Port Washington, the Northerner. It sunk in the late 1800s after floundering during a storm while carrying wood. It sunk while being towed to Milwaukee, and the crew had already boarded a separate boat, so no one died.

"It's beautiful, it literally looks like a pirate ship at the bottom of Lake Michigan," said Joseph Frank, who owns Port Deco Divers in Port Washington.

Frank has personally dove to dozens of shipwrecks in Lake Michigan and is a huge advocate for the sanctuary designation.

"It's an experience really limited to the Great Lakes," he said. "Especially in this area. Nowhere else in the world are you going to see this kind of preserved shipwrecks."

Because it's a freshwater lake and the water is typically very cold, the shipwrecks are remarkably preserved. That's why NOAA wants to protect the shipwrecks located in the area along Lake Michigan between Mequon and Two Rivers.

The mayor of Port Washington believes this will have a positive impact on the local economy.

"This brings greater focus that these kinds of treasures are here," said Mayor Tom Mlada. "That the stories behind those treasures, we really need to discover them and bring them to light."

He said throughout the public comment period, he hasn't heard any concerns from the community. The last public meeting takes place Thursday night and after that, comments will be accepted online through the end of March.

"I think people are extraordinarily excited and they're that excited without having a full grasp of what this means for us," Mlada said.

There are already laws protecting shipwrecks but this designation would offer more protection in the form of eliminating boats from anchoring to the wrecks.

Divers and fishermen would still be allowed to access the sanctuary.

NOAA would also be able to study the shipwrecks more carefully and take note when it looks like something's missing.

"People were actually destroying these pieces of history and taking things off the shipwreck," Frank said. "They lassoed ropes to them and put their boat in high gear and ran off with a piece of it."

The shipwrecks would still be owned by the State of Wisconsin, however the sanctuary would be funded through federal dollars.

Right now, there are only 13 marine sanctuaries in the country.

"This truly is a time capsule," said Russ Green, NOAA regional coordinator of the national marine sanctuary program in the Great Lakes. "We're going to make sure we're doing the right thing for these known places but it's also about the future and these new discoveries that could unlock new stories."

To submit a comment on the proposal, visit the Wisconsin Marine Sanctuary website

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