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Shipwreck Protection Plans Run Aground

A diver off the bow of the Monitor. The famous shipwreck lies 16 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras.

The Monitor is one of the most famous ships – and shipwrecks – in U.S. naval history. After several battles in 1862, the Union ironclad sunk 16 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras during the Civil War.

The wreck was discovered in 1973, and two years later the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary was created, protecting the site and one-mile of water that encircles it.

Now, NOAA wants to create similar sanctuaries around other important historical shipwrecks off the North Carolina coast.

“Expanding the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary… will elevate the significance of these wrecks nationally and turn this into an opportunity to increase heritage tourism and increase economic development in a way that can be done without any adverse impacts to fishermen, divers, or others,” says David Alberg, Superintendent of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

Alberg says expanding the sanctuaries will help protect one of America’s only World War II battlefields. About 1,200 U.S. servicemen lost their lives in shipwrecks off the North Carolina coast – about half the total who died at Pearl Harbor.

Credit NOAA / Monitor
One of four expansion plans for the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

A working group has developed four different expansion models, and is seeking public input.

While acknowledging the historic significance, the Dare County Commissioners oppose any expansion, saying it would restrict public access as well as the fishing and diving industries.

“The Dare County Board of Commissioners strongly object to the expansion of the sanctuary or the creation of additional marine sanctuaries,” said Board Chair Robert Woodard during a meeting earlier this month.

Woodard and other commissioners spoke of a general distrust of the federal government in opposing the marine sanctuary expansion.

“Expansion scares us,” explained Allen Burrus, a Dare County Commissioner and business owner in Buxton. “We’ve had a very pointed experience with the (National) Park Service where they’ve come in and closed all of our beaches. We’re not going to take that chance again.”

Alberg says fishing and diving are allowed at the Monitor Sanctuary, and will be allowed in any expansion. Only a few instances of illegal scavenging have occurred, he said.

NOAA has held several public hearings this month; the final one is schedule for Nags Head on Wednesday night.