Soured by what they view as onerous government
restrictions on fishing, boating and beach driving, Outer Banks
divers are skeptical of a proposed update of the Monitor
National Marine Sanctuary
that would include any possibility of future expansion.
But sanctuary officials said the draft
plan does not propose or
advocate an expansion. It only proposes discussion of whether or not
the sanctuary should protect more wrecks off the coast.
“This is not an effort to shut down the
site,” David Alberg, the sanctuary superintendent, told an audience
of mostly divers and fishermen at a public meeting last month at
Jennette’s Pier. “It’s an attempt to better understand the
Alberg said that the need to discuss expansion
was first raised during public scoping meetings in 2008, and
ultimately was recommended by the sanctuary’s advisory council, a
representative group with interests in fishing, recreational diving,
education, business, research, tourism, conservation and government.
If the draft plan is approved, it would prompt
a dialogue with the community about the potential value, or downside,
of expanding. It merely puts the question on the table, he said. It
does not preordain the outcome.
“The answer is, let’s hold those public
meetings,” Alberg said. “NOAA can’t make those decisions unless
we get that public input.”
Designated in January ,1975 by the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the nation’s first marine
sanctuary, the Monitor sanctuary is a column of water one-mile in
diameter centered on the remains of the Civil War ironclad Monitor.
The Union vessel, which was headed south to Beaufort, sank 16 miles
off Cape Hatteras during a raging New Year’s Eve storm in 1862,
taking the lives of 16 men.
Although the ship has alone proven to be a gold
mine for researchers -- more than 2,000 artifacts were preserved in
recovery efforts -- it also sits within the notorious Graveyard of
the Atlantic, where thousands of vessels dating to pre-Colonial times
through World War II were lost to pirates, weather and wars.
In addition to the issue of potential
expansion, the sanctuary staff identified priorities, based on
council recommendations: resource protection; education and outreach;
archeology; resource monitoring and science; identification of human
remains recovered from the Monitor; conservation of the Monitor and
the Monitor artifacts; and site administration and operations.
Clearly, it was the idea of expansion of the
Monitor sanctuary that most concerned those at the Nags Head meeting.
“In the southern Outer Banks, we all know
what’s happened with the federal government,” Steve Wilson, a
commercial fisherman and diver, told Alberg. “It doesn’t matter
what reassurances we receive. Any third party can come along and blow
that right out of the water.”
David “Crocket” Farrow, who owns a dive
charter business in Manteo, said that despite Alberg’s promise to
listen, he believes that, ultimately, NOAA intends to expand, no
matter what the local community says.
“We live for this ocean,” he said. “Now
when government comes in, it’s just fight after fight. What y’all
do to us is hard, man. We’re like Indians on a reservation right
now. Everywhere we go, there’s government surrounding us.”
And he said he is not alone in his skepticism
“Expand, expand, expand -- you keep bringing
it up,” he said to Alberg. “We don’t want it. Nobody I know
Others at the meeting agreed, saying that
putting anything in the plan about expansion of the sanctuary, even
just saying it should be discussed, would be akin to guaranteeing
expansion. And to them, that means less access for folks who make
their living on the water and more control to government.
In a later interview, Alberg acknowledged that
the Monitor sanctuary has been more restrictive than the other 12
sanctuaries in the system, but that is mostly because of the
uniqueness of the vessel and its extraordinary location.
Divers need to apply for research permits,
although they’re free, and research can mean simply taking
photographs. Nonetheless, Alberg said that he thinks a less
restrictive model would be more appropriate. With the wreck under 235
feet of water -- considered a ‘tech dive’ -- only two to three
divers annually even apply for a permit.
Otherwise, fishing on the wreck is fine, as
long as the engine is not cut off, there are no drag nets used and an
anchor isn’t dropped. Boats come and go and people fish over it all
the time, he said.
“One of the problems is the word
‘sanctuary’,” Alberg said. “People hear that and they think:
‘Stay away! Don’t come in! Don’t do anything!’”
Another way of thinking of a sanctuary,
however, is as a designated site that merits appreciation, but that
also preserves cultural, natural and historic resources for future
generations to enjoy.
For instance, much of the Battle of the
Atlantic took place in North Carolina waters, and there is no other
place in the world where divers can access three German U-boats -- as
long as they’re not touched or salvaged. A sanctuary that promotes
the site on a national scale, while fostering its protection, could
attract cultural and heritage tourism and booster the Outer Banks as
a dive destination.
Another site, Thunder Bay National Marine
Sanctuary in Alpena, Mich., is also in the process of updating its
management plan, but the community has specifically requested
expansion, said Carol Shafto, the chair of the sanctuary council for
seven years and the town’s former mayor.
Before Thunder Bay was designated in 2000, many
members of the Lake Huron community --- also divers and fishermen ---
were suspicious and distrustful of NOAA, she said, fearing
restrictive regulations and requirements like user fees and permits.
Folks even took to wearing “Say no to NOAA” buttons. In response,
NOAA agreed to a five-year sunset clause.
But at the end of five years, the community,
which is 100 miles from a freeway, was reaping the benefits from
cultural tourism and gladly renewed.
“Now we’re into 12 years, and it’s very
difficult to find people who admit they were against the sanctuary,”
Shafto said. “It may be the most significant and positive thing
this community has ever done.”
Shafto said that there is a new heritage
center, a major new museum that displays shipwreck artifacts, a new
nautical festival, a new glass-bottom boat tour to show wrecks in
shallow waters, and most recently, an effort to expand land-based
amusements for families.
“It’s more than a Mecca for divers,” she
said. “It’s become a family destination. There’s been a lot of
positive spinoff that wouldn’t have otherwise happened.”
Alberg said that a 2005 survey done by East
Carolina University determined that from about 1600 through World War
II, 2,500 to 3,000 vessels went down between Cape Hatteras and Cape
Lookout. But most of those ships don’t exist anymore, and NOAA is
not including any wish list in the draft plan detailing what vessels
to include or what size an expanded sanctuary should be.
Jim Bunch, a veteran Outer Banks diver and
member of the Monitor sanctuary advisory council, said that he
understands why local divers and fishermen would be nervous about
more government control off the coast and “making it basically a
wildlife preserve.” Yet the reality is, he said, that the only
thing government has tried to stop them from doing is removing
artifacts from wrecks. In fact, he has never heard anyone say
anything bad about the Monitor sanctuary.
“The big problem is the unknown,” said
Bunch, who has been diving since 1955. “I think the preservation
part, there’s no problem with that.”
There are about 10 or so dive operators on the
Outer Banks, Bunch said, and no more than 30 along the entire North
Carolina coast, and they take out thousands of divers each summer.
Bunch said that if NOAA approached the
community and reassured them -- say, there won’t be fees, they’d
work on publicity, they’d help out in any way they could -- folks
would be willing to go along with an expanded sanctuary.
“It’s honestly good for them,” he said.
“It just increases the awareness of what’s out there.”
Public comments on the draft management plan
will be accepted through June 22. Submit
comments through the electronic rule-making portal or by email.
Visit the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary Web
site for more information.
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read
other stories about the N.C. coast at www.nccoast.org.)