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Watermen suspicious of Mallows Bay Marine Sanctuary

Don Shomette via NOAA

Back in 2014, Maryland asked NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to make Mallows Bay and its famed ghost ships a marine sanctuary. And that has raised the hackles of some watermen from both sides of the Potomac.

A panel of Maryland and Virginia watermen told the Potomac River Fisheries Commission Thursday that the boundaries could extend farther into the river, beyond the confines of the bay, and affect their livelihoods.

"Most of the time, when NOAA comes, it doesn't work in our favor," said Robert T. Brown, one of those watermen.

Watermen have had a contentious history with the ships, which were among a massive fleet built in a hurry to carry cargo to Europe during World War I.

By the end of the war they were obsolete and many were poorly constructed. They were hauled to Mallows Bay to be burned, but watermen hired a lawyer and to stop it, fearing the pollution to their fishing grounds.  Now, the remaining hulls are great places to set nets to catch fish or to draw eco-tourists.

At the commission hearing,  the watermen questioned whether the ships really were used in the war effort or were just overstock, discarded like household trash. But NOAA's Paul "Sammy" Orlando insisted the "history of this area is actually quite significant."

"These actually did serve their purpose in World War I," he said.

In the end, watermen said they want the sanctuary to remain within the confines of Mallows Bay.

NOAA has scheduled two public meetings on the proposal. The first is from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday, March 7 at the Charles County government building, 200 Baltimore Street, La Plata. The second is from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, March, 9 in the CALT Building at Anne Arundel Community College, 101 College Parkway, Arnold.

Chesapeake: A Journalism Collaborative is funded with grant support from the Clayton Baker Trust, The Bancroft Foundation, Michael and Ann Hankin, The Jim and Patty Rouse Foundation, The Rob and Elizabeth Tyler Foundation, and the Mid-Shore Community Foundation.

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