On Thursday, Feb. 11, a chilly meeting room within the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum was packed with island locals and staff from NOAA who were all there to discuss the possible expansion of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.
The gathering was one of five public meetings held all along the North Carolina coast designed to answer questions and gather public input, and like many government meetings held on the island soil, the gathering – and the expansion proposal itself – was not without its fair share of controversy.
The expansion of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary is not a new concept. The Island Free Press has been writing about the potential project since it was first publically introduced in December of 2008, when a comprehensive review of the sanctuary was proposed.
Since then, four draft models of the expansion have been presented, and local suspicions have grown regarding the potential implications of increasing the expanse of the sanctuary – intentional or otherwise.
It’s a tough issue to be sure, and one that doesn’t have a ready answer. There are community members, divers, fishermen, and interested parties on both sides of the project, and plotting the best course of action – like navigating through the Graveyard of the Atlantic – isn’t an easy feat.
During this time when public feedback is encouraged, the best way forward is to be informed and listen to the voices that are shaping the expansion argument.
The Monitor National Marine Sanctuary has been established for more than 40 years. Designated in 1975, it was the first marine sanctuary created in the United States.
Located 16 miles south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, the sanctuary protects the wreck of the USS Monitor, a Civil War Union ironclad that is known for revolutionizing naval warfare with its exceptional design and rotating turret. It was made famous after its March 9, 1862, battle with a Confederate armored ship named the Virginia. The clash ended in a draw, but effectively marked the end of the era of wooden ships. The Monitor survived the battle, but eventually sank in a storm that same year to its current resting place.
The sanctuary is essentially a tunnel of water that spans one mile in diameter around the shipwreck site, and which was created to protect the structure from scavengers or disturbances. Recreational divers are currently able to access the site but cannot anchor at the site, damage or disturb the wreck, or remove artifacts. Commercial and recreational fishermen may also cross over the site, provided that they adhere to several rules, which include no bottom fishing, not using a trawl, and trolling only when the boat is in movement. According to Ernie Foster, member of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Committee, most of the fishing in the region is trolling, so these current rules haven’t been a major impediment up to this point.
After the 2008 review of the sanctuary’s management plan, the sanctuary’s Advisory Council voted in 2009 to establish a working group to examine the implications of possible expansion. This working group was comprised of a cross-section of parties, which included community members who had a stake in the expansion, including three to four commercial fishermen.
The reason for the expansion was to protect the hundreds of shipwrecks that are found within the Graveyard of the Atlantic and which span centuries. In 2014, the working group presented four potential models.
According to Jim Bunch, the Outer Banks’ Diving Industry representative on the Advisory Committee, a “sunset clause” was a must in the proposals. The sunset clause effectively states that after a few years or so, if the community isn’t happy with the changes, then things go back to the way things were before the expansion.
“The working group would not go forward without the sunset clause, and there is no plan without it,” he says. “It’s just determining how it will be implemented, and by whom, and when. As far as the council and working group are concerned, it has to be part of the plan, or else we don’t see any plan taking shape.”
Of the four models, the one with the smallest increase in area sets individual boundaries around select wreck sites that have an essential role in history, which are the USS YP-389, the WWII German submarines U-85, U-352, and U-701, the HMT Bedfordshire, the Diamond Shoals Lightship, and the E.M. Clark.
The more expansive models encompass large swaths of the coastline where up to 150 known shipwrecks are located, and where many historic themes and timeframes are represented. A complete overview of all four models, including maps, can be found here: http://monitor.noaa.gov/management/expansion.html
Since January, the public has been invited to post their comments on the models and the possible expansion and were encouraged to do so openly at public meetings. The comment period will continue until March 18th, when all input will be reviewed, and a final draft will be created. This process will take roughly two to three years.
During the Feb. 11 meeting in Hatteras village, and throughout the process, NOAA has attested that the goal of the organization is not to restrict access for divers, commercial fishermen, and recreational fishermen, but to work hand-in-hand to strengthen historical resources.
“The sanctuary programs for 40 years have worked closely with communities to do a couple things,” says David Alberg, the Sanctuary Superintendent. “One is to protect ocean resources, but two is to be a partner in these communities. It’s not the government coming in to set aside these areas, but instead, it’s the government coming to help the country understand why these resources are important. I think the sanctuary programs can bring a lot of things to these communities that other agencies cannot, but it really needs community involvement.”
During the meeting, several successful sanctuaries were discussed – particularly the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which is located in the Great Lakes. At this site, access was not restricted, and the sanctuary brought in more tourism to the community.
The NOAA team also noted that the agency has donated $2.7 million to the creation of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum and they are genuinely interested in ensuring that the community is not negatively affected by an expansion.
“Our goal here is to not burden the communities with additional regulations for the sake of regulations,” says Alberg. “We want to work with the community as a partner to protect these resources, and we think there’s a way to do that which does not affect fishing, businesses, and local residences. But the only way to do this is to work hand in hand with all the stakeholders.”
In theory, the proposal sounds like a good one – more discoveries and information about the hundreds of wrecks off the coast, uninterrupted access, and more tourism dollars for our fishing and diving communities.
So what’s the controversy?
A public comment submitted by the Dare County Board of Commissions effectively mirrored the feelings that were vocalized during the Hatteras village meeting and effectively brought up the overwhelming concerns.
“Although Dare County supports MNMS in protecting artifacts, educating the public, and preserving recovered remains… The Board of Commissions strongly objects to any expansion of the Sanctuary and to any effort that would limit or restrict recreational or commercial fishing activities now or in the future…
“…The current Superintendent, David Alberg, has stated publicly that he does not want expansion that excludes public access. Superintendent Alberg is a dedicated public servant and we take him at his word and believe his statement to be genuine and sincere. However, Dare County has witnessed first-hand how promises made by other well-intended federal superintendents have later been set aside by those who follow…”
Local stakeholders are essentially afraid that once boundaries are put in place, they can be tightened.
Outside forces could step in – such as an outside environmental group – to push NOAA’s hand and force more restrictions or outright closures.
So the issue isn’t what NOAA intends to do with the expansion, or even how the current proposal is in any way bad for the island. The big issue is what setting aside these areas as marine sanctuaries could morph into in the future.
THE HATTERAS MEETING
The Hatteras village meeting was attended by 11 people total from NOAA, including Monitor National Marine Sanctuary staff, and roughly 40 islanders, including commercial and recreational fishermen and owners of the island’s two diving businesses.
The meeting began with a roughly 4- minute long, multi-part presentation by NOAA on the history of the sanctuary and the process that led to the current models. After that, the floor was open to public comments, which were to be three minutes long for each person.
This was the first point of contention.
Jeff Oden, arguably one of the meeting’s most passionate and well-received commenters, noted out loud that considering that the sole purpose of the meeting was to share public comments, the public should be able to share their viewpoints for “as long as it takes,” and, as a result, the three -minute rule was subsequently abandoned.
The first speaker was Dare County Commissioner Warren Judge, who said before the meeting that for him, attending the public event was crucial.
“When you have an opportunity to give comments and give testimony on an issue that affects all of Dare County, I’m going to be there. There’s no one who appreciates history more than Dare Countians,” he said. “The people in the program are well intended. No one envisions that this would lead to shutting down access, but modern history tells us otherwise. Really, the question is, ‘Why aren’t people here?’”
When Judge spoke, his comments echoed the room’s concerns.
“There have been promises made by the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service, and we have heard these words of ‘continued public access’ before,” he said, which was responded to by a bitter laugh from the crowd. “I’m sorry that you have to bear the sins of the past.”
He also brought up another theme of the evening – the involvement of local stakeholders. “We want a seat at the table. Stakeholders should have seats… and we want equal say in the governance.”
Warren Judge was met with a solid round of applause, but one of the most resonating speakers was still to come.
The fourth speaker of the evening was Jeff Oden,- a Hatteras Island commercial fishermen of nearly 40 years, and a local who has ties so deep to the community that they literally span centuries.
“If they think I don’t understand how significant these wrecks are, they’re wrong,” he said in an interview after the meeting. “My great, great grandfather was shipwrecked on this island twice, and the second time he figured it was destiny and married a Native American. That’s how the Odens got to Hatteras Island.”
During the meeting, he read from a typed two-page statement that had heads nodding in agreement with every key sentiment.
The first section outlined how when he first started fishing, all he needed was a boat and a fishing license. He then went on – in great detail – to everything he was required to do to go fishing today.
The list went on and on.
It included how he was required to schedule an observer five days in advance, install two cameras “that are looking over my shoulder for the entire trip,” call in three hours before returning to port, fill out a log book of multiple forms “each time I spin my reel,” retrieve the video cartridges from the two cameras and mail them in at his own expense, and finally, fill out two more log books on discards, and the economics of the trip.
“And with that said,” he continued, “we are all here tonight being asked about how we feel about more government intrusion in our lives – on an island that has seen more than its fair share of government promises broken, and liberties lost.”
In the rest of his comment, and in an interview after the meeting, Oden also explained how the wrecks were inherently important to locals as well as NOAA.
“We always try to convey what we know about these wrecks [to our passengers] and it’s good that NOAA is trying to enlighten us about them. Those of us that fish probably know a lot more about where these wrecks are located than the government, and we would truly love to know what they are,” he said. “They’ve been historically significant to us for years. And we could be partners with NOAA, but we just don’t trust where this is going.
“All we got to do is look at our national seashore park and see the liberties we’ve lost here. One bird on the fringe of its range is holding our beaches hostage half the year,” he said. “The [NOAA] people may have been totally sincere in saying fishing won’t be impacted, but that’s not guaranteed — there’s no telling down the road. Those of us who’ve lived here all our lives could lose one more liberty. There’s not one soul in Dare County that goes through Ocracoke Inlet, Hatteras Inlet, or Oregon Inlet that doesn’t think this is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt at an anti-fishing effort. We know what’s coming.”
He also brought up another point that came to light during the Hatteras meeting.
“Most of those wrecks are way in the deep – and divers can’t get to them. And most of the wrecks that are inshore were already decimated [when they were sunk], and father time is doing the rest, and quickly,” he said. “What purpose is there to put these off limits?”
Dave Sommers was the eighth person to make a comment, and was another well-received speaker who garnered a lot of nods and applause from the room.
He started his local diving business, Dive Hatteras, in 1989, and has been exploring the local wrecks since the 1970s. He also pointed out that a good chunk of the wrecks, unlike the freshwater sites in the Great Lakes’ Thunder Bay, might not be worth the sanctuary restrictions, noting that it was an “ap ples to oranges” comparison.
“Thunder Bay is a quiescent freshwater lake where the cold water actually protects the wreck,” he pointed out in his typed notes, which he brought to the meeting. “We are a dynamic, high energy marine environment. Shipwreck sites here are under the constant and relentless attack of the ocean from the moment they sunk.”
“Many sites we rarely visit anymore due to the fact that little is left of them — the ocean has eaten them. So what are we trying to protect? And from whom?”
This led Sommers to the biggest concern that is arguably at the forefront of the local resistance.
“What happens when some zealot environmental groups decide that they want to push their agenda, and force it through actions such as lawsuits, to force the hand of NOAA? Outside groups will push this just as they have done with the bird issue and beach restrictions. I don’t believe NOAA would fight very hard to defend our use of the ocean.”
His closing points centered on a common theme throughout the night.
“I am not totally opposed to NOAA involvement with the shipwreck sites we have here off Hatteras. The numerous field efforts over the past many seasons have revealed interesting things about these sites, and I have supported their efforts with information when asked.
“However, the expanded sanctuary is something I cannot yet support. The total uncertainty of the entire effort, the complete lack of control we’ll have when this is established, and the eventual ‘mission creep’ that will inevitably occur are concerns that I cannot get beyond.”
The meeting ended after 90 minutes or so, and many people lingered to talk with NOAA staff, as well as the public commenters and colleagues who had grabbed their attention.
Ten people made public comments at the meeting, and all were opposed to any expansion of the sanctuary.
After the meeting, David Alberg said that the response was what he expected, but that it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“I went away moved with the passion, and the honesty and candor in which everyone spoke,” he said. “It does really matter, and I know citizens have felt a lot of pressure from a lot of different areas… They’re overwhelmed by government regulation. In a sense, they’re under assault. We want to be very sensitive to that, and it was a good opportunity for NOAA and our staff to hear that, and learn from it. Our goal is to look at this from a perspective that takes into account all the different people who have to live with the potential expansion, and I think last night was really helpful. I went into this expecting the message would be what it was, and that’s OK.”
He also made it be clear that the four models were not the only movement forward, and that “no expansion at all” was a valid possibility.
“’Is this a done deal?’ The answer is absolutely not,” he said. “This is just a first step. We wanted to meet the folks down there, and give them a chance to meet us – it’s not just faceless people in Washington, but people who are living amongst these resources day in and day out. We want to hear from these folks, and learn from these folks as well.
“One of the alternatives is always to do nothing, and we have to make sure that’s represented. Those four approaches were presented to NOAA by the Advisory Council – they don’t represent concrete areas or shipwrecks or regions. People see these maps and think ‘there they are – these are the four options.’ But there could be a fifth variance, or the other option, which is do nothing.”
And Alberg wants the community to know that NOAA wants to take every action needed to ensure the local community isn’t affected. “There’s an opportunity here. We’re not every federal agency and I understand there’s a long history with other federal agencies,” he said. “But the very reason we get the public involved at the first step is to make sure the concerns they are expressing ‘say one thing, do something else,’ doesn’t happen. “
THE ADVISORY COUNCIL
Ernie Foster joined the Advisory Council late in the process. He was asked in October to be a representative for the fishing community to replace Captain Jay Kavanagh of Bite Me Fishing Charters.
“My first meeting was in October, and they told me that [the public meetings] were coming down the pike.”
Foster is the owner of the Albatross Fleet and he has been fishing on the Hatteras Island waters since he was a kid. “My first trip to the wrecks was in 1951, so I have a lot of history fishing the wrecks that are being talked about.”
Foster was unable to attend the Hatteras village meeting because of a long-planned trip, but he reached out to the fishing community and encouraged them to attend.
Like the attendees at the meeting, Foster shares the fear that this step could lead to greater restrictions in the long run.
“It seems on the face value to be a pretty reasonable process” he says. “The concern that many of the watermen have, and the concerns that I share, is that this is an opening of Pandora’s Box. The history in regards to the past 30 years in the treatment of those who make a living on the water has not been positive. If there’s a change in management, and ultimately there will be, the concern is what are the guarantees that this will not come back to create negative circumstances to those who have worked the waters all our lives?”
He also noted that the damage of wrecks by fishermen is minimal to non-existent, which reinforces the question of why a sanctuary status is needed. “From a purely financial perspective, no fishermen wants their net lost to a wreck,” he says. “They have a strong reason not to disturb them. The [local] fishermen do not believe that professional fishermen are a threat to these sites.”
These questions, as well as the island’s not-so-recent history, are what have led to the skepticism, and the need to have a guarantee that access will remain open.
“I would like to see at the very least an iron-clad change in the language so the next regime could not use this [expansion] to add more restrictions to fishermen. I’d like to promote awareness of the wrecks, while ensuring that those that fish won’t lose their livelihoods,” he says.
Jim Bunch of Nags Head is also a local Outer Banks Advisory Council member. He has been on the council for eight years, and has been diving the wreck sites for more than 50 years. “I’ve probably done as much diving on the shipwrecks as anyone has. I’ve been diving since 1955, and have been on about 50 shipwrecks. I wrote stories [and books], did underwater photography, and was more or less involved in the whole industry. So my perspective completely pertains to the diving industry.”
He also has a personal relationship with the U-85, one of the specific wreck sites that is included in the expansion plan in Model A.
“I became attached to the U-85. I wrote two books on that, and I got to meet so many people who were actually involved with that wreck – the kids and the survivors – and you want to see this type of thing publicized as much as it can, so people can learn about it, read about it, and appreciate it,” he says.
Because he joined in April, 2008, Bunch has been involved in the expansion conversation since it became a viable concept and has had years of experience working with the members of NOAA.
“NOAA does good work. They’re dedicated people, and they have the equipment, the expertise, and the time to do the work and publicize these shipwrecks, and I can’t see anyone else around that has the same things going for them as NOAA does,” he says. “If this [expansion] and the addition of other shipwrecks has th e same effect as it has had in other regions, I think the community will be surprised how good this can turn out to be.
“ There’s a concern of the potential problems that could arise, and it should be that way,” he says. “The fishermen should follow this all the way through and make sure they get what they want.
“There is nothing in there that can’t be changed. This is just an idea. If the people don’t like it, and nobody wants it, then it won’t happen – that’s basically the way it is,” he continues.
“I think the most important thing is for everyone to take an active interest in it. I think it’s great that people are participating and giving their opinions. All I can say is I’ve worked with these guys for eight years. They’re good people, and they’re always willing to talk to you – I can’t say they’ll satisfy you, but they’re willing to talk, and they’re sincerely dedicated people who want to publicize the history of shipwrecks. “
W HAT’S NEXT
When putting all the different puzzle pieces together, the end result is a lot of good intentions across the board.
Islanders appreciate past NOAA efforts and are generally interested in learning more about the wreck sites offshore – evident both at the public meeting and in the comments that followed.
And NOAA genuinely wants to work with the public to find a solution that doesn’t add any more government restrictions into their already overburdened lives.
But the bigger issue for islanders is that there’s a lot of skepticism about what the future could bring.
What’s the resolution?
The Sunset Clause is a good start, and an option to go back to the way things were if new and unintended consequences arise would arguably go a long way in securing peace of mind.
In many islanders’ minds, the need for a seat at the table of sanctuary managers, and more importantly, a guarantee that access would never be restricted in the long-term would be instrumental in moving forward with an expansion.
But it’s a hard guarantee to make.
And without it, any additional government involvement in the local landscape – even at its most well intentioned – is a very hard sell.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
NOAA is accepting public comments until March 18 via mail, e-mail, and electronically online. Visit http://monitor.noaa.gov/management/expansion.html for information on how to submit your comments. (There is a 5,000 character limit for online comments.)
After the public comment period is over, a possible expansion will not be implemented for an additional two to three years.