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Part of Lake Ontario is now a federal marine sanctuary. What led to this recognition?

Two divers approach a sunken ship at the bottom of Lake Ontario. It is covered in vegetation and crustaceans.
Divers explore the wreck of the St. Peter, a 135-foot, three-masted schooner that sank near Pultneyville in Wayne County in 1898 after a battle with 70 mph winds.

The federal government has designated a 1,700-square-mile area of eastern Lake Ontario, starting at the border of Monroe and Wayne counties and continuing north to Cape Vincent, as a national marine sanctuary.

In its announcement of the new Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the designation is meant to "recognize the national significance of the area's historical, archaeological, and cultural resources."

"It means a lot for the recognition of this place," said Ellen Brody, Great Lakes regional coordinator of NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. "It will become a place that people want to visit. It will have tourism impacts; it will have economic development impacts."

The Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary is the 16th federal marine sanctuary, and the third in the Great Lakes. Monterey Bay in California, the Florida Keys, and Thunder Bay in Michigan are among the other sanctuaries.


The designation recognizes Lake Ontario's history as an important gateway between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes. The area includes 41 known shipwrecks — some dating to the 1700s or the War of 1812 — and one known aircraft. But historical records and news reports indicate another 19 shipwrecks, two aircraft, and several underwater archeological sites could be in the zone, according to NOAA. The shoreline of the area is dotted with lighthouses.

"There's amazing stories to tell about eastern Lake Ontario," Brody said. "It has a really important place in our nation's history."

The waters in the sanctuary and adjacent lands also have historical, cultural, and spiritual significance to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which factored into NOAA's decision.

The new marine sanctuary designation offers regulatory protection against the damage or removal of important resources in the area. It could also lead to new research. There hasn't been any government- or university-funded scientific survey of the wrecks in eastern Lake Ontario, which have largely been found by hobbyist shipwreck researchers and recreational divers.

That should change under the new designation, which spurs the creation of a new advisory council to help design a management plan for the sanctuary. That plan will guide research, education, monitoring, and outreach activities.

"We do plan on getting out into the water, exploring for more shipwrecks that are yet to be discovered, and really bringing that experience, bringing the understanding of what lies on the lake bottom to people who will likely never be out there," Brody said.

A coalition of governments and community partners has pursued the designation for roughly a decade. The members had argued that the designation would help protect historical and cultural resources while promoting the area's recreational assets and encouraging tourism.

"Now the truly rewarding effort begins as our communities begin working in partnership with federal and state agencies to realize the sanctuary's promise,” Philip Church, Oswego County administrator and chair of the task force that nominated the sanctuary area, said during a news conference Wednesday.

"The education and understanding, the research and collaboration, the economic opportunities, and the adventures all still lie before us."

Jeremy Moule is a deputy editor with WXXI News. He also covers Monroe County.