President Joe Biden’s administration took the first step Thursday toward designating the Pennsylvania-owned section of Lake Erie as the state’s first national marine sanctuary.
A formal designation could take several years, and it wouldn’t change existing regulations around the use of the lake. The announcement sets up a public comment period before the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration writes a draft plan for the sanctuary.
The designation would apply to an approximately 740-square-mile (1,917-square-kilometer) area of water off Pennsylvania’s 75 mile-long (120-kilometer-long) shoreline. It would attract federal funding to help find and preserve shipwrecks in the lake and boost education and outreach around the area’s history.
That history includes being home to indigenous people who once lived there, its role as a hub on the Underground Railroad, and a maritime history as hosting the nation’s largest fleet of steamboats before the Civil War. The area possibly includes scores of yet-to-be-discovered shipwrecks, according to NOAA.
There are 35 known shipwrecks in the area, from pre-Civil War steamboats to speedboats, tugs, barges and workboats lost before 1940, the agency said.
There are two other national marine sanctuaries in the Great Lakes and a third in Lake Ontario nearing designation, all focused on shipwrecks. There are 15 total national marine sanctuaries, some of which focus on preserving endangered aquatic life, as well as two marine national monuments.
Erie County first requested the designation in 2015.