NOAA designates new national marine sanctuary in Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan

Protected area will safeguard shipwrecks that played critical role in nation’s early history

NOAA designates new national marine sanctuary in Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan
Photo: Еamara Thomsen, Wisconsin Historical Society

NOAA has announced the designation of a 962-square-mile area of Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan as a national marine sanctuary. Such sanctuaries are protected waters that include important habitats and, in cases like this one, archeological sites.

Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo, said:

“Preserving this region furthers the Biden-Harris Administration’s vision of locally-led, collaborative conservation. This designation is also an exciting opportunity for the public to celebrate and help protect this piece of our nation’s rich maritime history.”

The Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary will protect 36 historically significant shipwrecks and related maritime heritage resources, 21 of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Well-preserved by Lake Michigan’s cold, fresh water, several of the known shipwrecks are essentially intact and look much like they did when they sank. The area also includes Wisconsin’s two oldest known shipwrecks, and archival research suggests there may be dozens more yet to be discovered.

Spanning the early 1800s through the 20th century, the shipwrecks represent a cross-section of vessel types that played critical roles in transforming the Great Lakes from a maritime frontier into the nation’s busiest waterway. The ships carried grain and raw materials east as other vessels traveled west loaded with coal, manufactured goods, and settlers. 

Nicole LeBoeuf, acting director of NOAA’s National Ocean Service, said:

“The designation of this sanctuary is a milestone for NOAA, Wisconsin, and the nation. This new sanctuary opens the door to world-class research, educational opportunities, and tourism for generations to come.”

NOAA and the state of Wisconsin will co-manage the sanctuary. The sanctuary designation will take effect following 45 days of continuous session of the U.S. Congress after publication of this action in the Federal Register.

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers said:

“We’re really excited about NOAA’s announcement. The designation builds on 30 years of maritime heritage preservation by the State of Wisconsin and will create exciting new opportunities in education, recreation, and tourism in our coastal communities.”

U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin said:

“I worked to support state and local efforts on the nomination of this area of Lake Michigan as a new national marine sanctuary and together we are getting the job done. Our Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary will protect and preserve historic sites, bring new opportunities for research, and boost our local tourism economy. I am thankful for all the hard work that has gone into this effort in Wisconsin, as I am to have the Biden Administration being a partner that is committed to carrying on the strong Wisconsin tradition of protecting our Great Lakes.”

The area was nominated for national marine sanctuary consideration by a diverse coalition of organizations and individuals at local, state, regional and national levels. This included elected officials, historical societies, businesses, museums, and environmental, recreational, conservation, tourism and educational groups. Principal cities involved in the nomination include Port Washington, Sheboygan, Manitowoc, and Two Rivers.

This is the most recent sanctuary designation since the protection of Mallows Bay, Maryland, about 40 miles south of Washington, D.C. in 2019.