Gala celebrates marine sanctuaries

WASHINGTON – In early June, I proudly participated in the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation’s annual Ocean Awards Gala. I’m very grateful to the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation for presenting me with its Leadership Award, but most of all I’m thankful for all the tremendous work the foundation has done in preserving America’s marine treasures.

In Michigan and across the country, the foundation has helped show how preserving these treasures is not just our responsibility, but an important tool for scientific discovery, for exciting young minds, and for economic development.

One great thing about the gala was the chance to visit again with Jeff Gray, the superintendent of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Michigan’s only federal sanctuary, and in fact the only such freshwater sanctuary. Thunder Bay is a treasure, and Jeff has been its keeper for more than a decade.

Under his leadership, the sanctuary has become a tremendous educational and scientific resource. For example, in late June, more than 600 students from as far away as Hong Kong and Egypt will descend on Alpena for an international underwater robotics competition. The sanctuary partners with universities to promote careers in the marine economy and supports preservation and exploration efforts not just in the Great Lakes but in the oceans as well. And the sanctuary has provided a huge economic boost to Northeast Michigan.

All our sanctuaries are precious, but I have a special appreciation for the foundation’s support of Thunder Bay. Thunder Bay is the only freshwater federal sanctuary. But its uniqueness goes beyond that distinction. Unlike most federal sanctuaries that protect natural features, Thunder Bay was established primarily to preserve historical and cultural artifacts the scores of shipwrecks on the bottom of Lake Huron. The lake’s cold freshwater is perfect for preserving these shipwrecks.

The history of the Great Lakes is written on the bottom of Thunder Bay. The shipwrecks in this sanctuary are eloquent beyond measure. They tell story after story stories of loss, stories of heroism and folly, stories of the irreplaceable role the lakes have played, culturally and economically.

Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposed a major expansion of the sanctuary’s boundaries by regulation, a proposal similar to legislation I introduced previously. Under this plan, the sanctuary would go from 448 square miles to more than 4,000. It would add 47 known shipwrecks to the 45 already preserved, and experts believe 100 or more additional shipwrecks wait to be discovered in the expanded sanctuary. We’re hopeful the expansion will be finalized this fall, adding to the stories Thunder Bay tells us.

We have to ensure that the Great Lakes can continue to tell us their stories. Based on Thunder Bay’s great success, I will soon introduce the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Assessment Act. This bill would direct the NOAA administrator to work with local communities all around the Great Lakes to identify other underwater areas that possess significant historical and archaeological resources and recommend which should be designated as national marine sanctuaries. The goal is to reflect a wider and deeper vision for preserving our Great Lakes heritage.

It has been a privilege for me, over more than 35 years in the Senate, to work for the preservation of our Great Lakes. They are precious to all of us who know them. Working to protect them, to restore them, to meet the responsibility we all have as stewards, has been a big part of my own story. And before I leave the Senate, I will work hard to add one more chapter.

– – –

Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan and co-chair of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force.