Prove your humanity

The federal government is considering a proposal to designate the Pennsylvania portion of Lake Erie as a national marine sanctuary. 

The proposal looks to protect the dozens of underwater shipwrecks that lie dormant beneath the lake’s surface. 

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“There are quite a few shipwrecks in the Erie waters,” said Ben Ford, an underwater archaeologist and professor of anthropology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who has been diving the waters of Lake Erie for years. “There were probably somewhere on the order of between 150 and 200 losses in this area, of which about 30 or so are known.” 

The proposal being considered by NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has support from experts and amateur enthusiasts. If successful, Lake Erie would be the fourth sanctuary on the Great Lakes and join a group of 15 marine national sanctuaries

Ford said the designation, which would encompass approximately 740 square miles, would help preserve the historical heritage of Lake Erie’s shipwrecks, offering a glimpse into the past and fostering responsible exploration through diving. 

Underwater shot of shipwreck

The mainmast and stone cargo are visible on the deck of the Indiana, which sank in Lake Erie on September 25, 1870.  According to accounts, the sailing vessel carried a shipment of paving stones and curb stone from Buffalo when it was struck by a heavy squall and started leaking. The ship sank within 15 miles of Erie, Pa. The crew survived. The 2022 photo by Randy Knoll is courtesy of the Pennsylvania Archaeology Shipwreck and Survey Team.

A connection to the past

Lake Erie’s cold, fresh waters have acted as a natural preservative, protecting the wrecks from the typical corrosion and warping associated with saltwater environments. 

From steamboats to sailing vessels, the wrecks offer a tangible connection to the past.

“There’s a big sand sucker [dredging ship] that’s upside down, but it looks almost like a big wooden football field with two propellers sticking up,” Ford said. “There are steamboats with…a lot of the structure still there and some of the engines. There are sailing vessels that look like sailing vessels. They almost look like something out of a Disney movie.”

Map of shipwrecks

Image from the Erie County Lake Erie Quadrangle National Marine Sanctuary proposal, 2015.

Erie County (Pa.) petitioned the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to grant the national marine sanctuary designation in 2015 to protect the lake’s “cultural and historical artifacts” and expand tourism and educational opportunities along the shore.

In its application, the officials noted the area’s rich Native American presence before European conquest, the area’s role in the War of 1812, and its biological importance — Lake Erie is home to 50 percent of the fish in the Great Lakes. 

Ellen Brody, the Great Lakes regional coordinator for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, describes marine sanctuaries as iconic underwater sites spanning locations from the Florida Keys, the Olympic Coast, and Hawaii.

“National marine sanctuaries are a lot like national parks, but all underwater,” Brody said. “Really, what we do in national marine sanctuaries is tell the stories of these places.”

Earlier this year, NOAA announced it was considering designating the marine sanctuary and took public comments on the proposal. 

What a marine sanctuary designation would mean for Lake Erie

Brody says if the marine sanctuary petition is successful, the area would be managed to protect resources and help the public interpret them. That includes more research and monitoring, as well as promoting tourism in the area. 

The sanctuary would mean no anchoring near a shipwreck site because of the damage anchors can do to them. Brody says boaters would use the sanctuary’s own mooring buoys. 

“[These are) really high-quality mooring buoys at each shipwreck site, so the dive boats can attach to those mooring buoys.”

While some residents expressed concern about the designation’s potential impact on recreation, Brody says sanctuary status for the Lake wouldn’t impede access. 

“I think in many ways the term ‘sanctuary’ is an unfortunate term because it makes people think that they can’t use it,” he said. “We very much promote fishing, diving, and boating because we want people to enjoy these places.”

Public comment ended in July. Brody says the designation process could come to a conclusion in as little as three years.