Mallows Bay-Potomac River Takes Important Step Toward First New Marine Sanctuary in 19 Years

New sanctuary in Chesapeake Bay watershed will protect the “Ghost Fleet” of more than 200 shipwrecks

Silver Spring, MD [May 31, 2019] – National conservation and preservation groups joined local community partners to celebrate an important milestone toward the designation of a new national marine sanctuary at Mallows Bay in the Potomac River. The sanctuary is expected to be finalized by the end of 2019 and will be the first designated in 19 years.

The proposed Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary encompassing 18 square miles contains a unique and rich legacy that spans American history, from Native American culture to Revolutionary and Civil War era activity to industrial era steamboat transports and historic commercial fishing operations. Its most prominent feature is the “Ghost Fleet,” or the remains of more than 200 shipwrecks, including more than 100 wooden steamships built as part of America’s engagement in World War I that are oftentimes emergent above the waterline.  It will be the first national marine sanctuary within the Chesapeake Bay watershed and will be jointly administered by NOAA, the State of Maryland, and Charles County.

Kris Sarri, president and CEO of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, said, “When you visit Mallows Bay and paddle among  the remains of an underwater fleet, it transports you back in history, all the while enjoying the abundant wildlife that now calls the shipwrecks home. Mallows Bay is a special place that deserves protection forever. NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Senator Cardin, Senator Van Hollen, Congressman Hoyer, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and Charles County worked with a broad coalition of stakeholders to designate this site and we appreciate all of their efforts.”

“Designating the Ghost Fleet in Mallows Bay the Chesapeake Bay’s first national marine sanctuary is a fitting tribute to a unique cultural and natural resource that provides a tangible link to important chapters in U.S. history,” said Katherine Malone-France, interim chief preservation officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “We commend NOAA for taking this action to promote a historic place that conveys the rise of American industrialism, ingenuity, and a citizen war effort that heralded the emergence of our country as a world power. This designation will ensure that more Americans are able to experience this special place.”

“We’re thrilled to learn that Mallows Bay is now another step closer toward becoming the first National Marine Sanctuary designated in nearly 20 years and the first in the Chesapeake,” said Chesapeake Conservancy President and CEO Joel Dunn. “Mallows Bay is one of the Chesapeake’s great treasures, a place steeped in our nation’s history, a thriving ecological habitat, and just a short drive from the capital of the United States. It’s a place to visit that deserves national and international attention, on par with the likes of Everglades National Park or the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.”    

Photo by Don Shomette

“This shipwreck sanctuary would not be possible without the vision and leadership of historian Don Shomette and the strong support of Charles County and numerous historical, recreational, conservation, tourism, Native American and educational groups over the past five years,” said Steve Bunker, chair of the Friends of Mallows Bay. “This great team will be critical in the months and years ahead as we work to better connect the public to the rich history, natural beauty and recreational opportunities of this area.”

The Ghost Fleet of the Mallows Bay site includes more than 200 wrecks that span three centuries of maritime heritage. As the largest and most varied collection of shipwrecks in the western hemisphere, the Ghost Fleet is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Over time, these abandoned ships became the foundation for a rich habitat for endangered and threatened wildlife, including bald eagles, herons, and osprey, river otters and beaver, and numerous fish species.  

Situated less than 40 miles south of Washington, D.C., it will be the closest national marine sanctuary to our nation’s capital, opening new possibilities for building support for the National Marine Sanctuary System among the public.

This proposed sanctuary provides ample potential for educational and outreach opportunities. Mallows Bay is an outdoor classroom for two Ocean Guardian schools in Maryland, where it is a safe space for students to explore and learn outside of the traditional framework and off of screens. Sanctuaries, including Mallows Bay, are a model for outdoor classrooms, getting kids outdoors to learn skills and becoming interested in the environmental field. Most recently, partnerships with the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, Diving With a Purpose and Junior Scientists in the Sea have provided in-pool dive instruction for high school students and introduced other advanced technologies that one day may be the inspiration for academic and career pursuits.

Mallows Bay is a popular spot for canoeing, kayaking, fishing, birdwatching and other outdoor recreation, making it an economic engine for the region. The sanctuary designation will enhance the site’s tourism and recreation potential thanks to elevated awareness, new programs and enhanced public access points throughout the sanctuary, and new links with local businesses. Unlike maritime heritage sites with fully submerged shipwrecks, the historic and ecological resources at Mallows Bay are visible from shore, readily accessible by kayak and brought to life with an interpretative water trail guide available on-site. The site also has great promise for research, conservation, citizen science, and educational opportunities because of its unique maritime features and connection to the Chesapeake Bay.

America’s National Marine Sanctuary System includes 13 marine and one Great Lakes sanctuaries and two marine national monuments. These unique waters sustain critical, breathtaking marine habitats that provide homes to endangered and threatened species. They preserve America’s rich maritime heritage and are living laboratories for science, research, education and conservation. Sanctuaries also offer world-class outdoor recreation experiences for all ages and support local communities by bringing billions of dollars to their economies. Communities across the nation look to sanctuaries to protect nationally significant areas of our ocean, coasts, and Great Lakes.

The State of Maryland submitted the nomination for Mallows Bay-Potomac River in 2014 in partnership with Charles County and a diverse coalition of local, state and national community members.



The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, established in 2000, is the official non-profit partner of the National Marine Sanctuary System. The Foundation directly supports America’s national marine sanctuaries through our mission to protect species, conserve ecosystems and preserve America’s maritime heritage. We accomplish our mission through community stewardship and engagement programs, on-the-water conservation projects, public education and outreach programs, and scientific research and exploration. The Foundation fosters innovative projects that are solution-oriented, scalable and transferable, and develop strategic partnerships that promote the conservation and recovery of species and their habitats. Learn more at

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit organization, works to save America’s historic places. | @savingplaces

Chesapeake Conservancy’s mission is to conserve and restore the natural and cultural resources of the Chesapeake Bay watershed for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. We empower the conservation community with access to the latest data and technology. As principal partner for the National Park Service on the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network and the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, we helped create 153 new public access sites and permanently protect some of the Bay’s special places like Werowocomoco, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, and Fort Monroe National Monument.