FAIR HAVEN — As a shipwreck diver who traveled to other Great Lakes for more than two decades, Oswego County Administrator Phil Church wondered how to best highlight the shipwrecks on the eastern end of Lake Ontario.
Through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Sanctuaries program, he may have the answer.
NOAA and local officials on Monday held the first of four public meetings to discuss the proposed Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary. Church refers to it as a "shipwreck sanctuary" because there are nearly 70 known or potential shipwrecks in the 1,700-square-mile area that could be designated as a national marine sanctuary.
Cayuga, Jefferson, Oswego and Wayne counties, the city of Oswego and New York state pursued the marine sanctuary designation after NOAA opened its nomination process in 2014 — the first time in 20 years the agency accepted new proposals.
After receiving input from federal and state government officials, museums and nonprofit organizations, the nomination to designate eastern Lake Ontario as a national marine sanctuary was submitted in 2017.
In a presentation at Monday's meeting, Church outlined what the sanctuary would achieve, including the protection of maritime heritage resources, expanding research programs and strengthening partnerships between federal, state and regional agencies.
Church clarified that the sanctuary wouldn't prevent existing activities from continuing. The designation, he explained, wouldn't interfere with activities at the Port of Oswego or sport fishing that occurs on the lake.
"We don't want to bring in something new that's going to limit something wonderful we already have," Church said. "We want to enhance it."
NOAA officials presented general information about national marine sanctuaries and how the counties could benefit from the designation.
Joe Hoyt, national maritime heritage coordinator for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, detailed the potential for educational programs, public-private partnerships and underwater exploration.
"Shipwrecks bring people out of the woodwork," he said. "They're fascinating. They're exciting."
Within the last two weeks, a team of NOAA divers and videographers explored a shipwreck off the coast of Wayne County and a ship's boiler located below the surface near Oswego. The agency documented the effort in a video that was shown at the meeting.
The designation process will last at least two years, according to Ellen Brody, who serves as director of NOAA's Great Lakes National Marine Sanctuaries program. The agency is in the first phase of the process, which involves gathering comments and holding public meetings.
NOAA is accepting public comments for the proposed Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary until July 31.
Once the public comment phase is finished, NOAA will author a draft environmental impact statement, a draft management plan and proposed regulations for the sanctuary. After publication of the documents, more public input will be sought and additional meetings will be scheduled.
The final step in the process is to designate the sanctuary after reviews by Congress and New York state. Brody noted that designating a new marine sanctuary can be done administratively and doesn't require congressional approval.
"We do carefully consider each step of the process and we want to make sure that this sanctuary reflects the resources here and the communities and the users of this sanctuary," Brody said.
There are 13 national marine sanctuaries across the U.S. Along with Lake Ontario, there are two other proposed sanctuaries being considered by NOAA: Mallows Bay-Potomac River and Wisconsin-Lake Michigan.
NOAA would have a presence if Lake Ontario is designated as a national marine sanctuary. Through its National Marine Sanctuaries program, the agency has 14 offices and seven visitor centers. Volunteers assist staff at the locations.
There were a handful of speakers at Monday's meeting, which nearly 50 people attended. Jim Kennard, a Rochester-area shipwreck explorer, said he wanted to corrected "misconceptions and errors" that have been reported about the proposal. While there are 21 known shipwrecks, he explained that only five are accessible to divers. Because of that, he doesn't believe the proposed sanctuary would become a major diving tourism destination.
Kennard added that most of the 47 potential shipwrecks don't exist. Some of the ships were removed or actually wrecked on shore. Others are located in Canada. One is actually in Lake Erie, he said.
Regarding the potential national designation, he urged NOAA to commit resources to all communities that would be part of the sanctuary instead of having one site.
"If you have one central location in Sodus, Cape Vincent or Oswego, you're going to pull people's interest to that one particular town to the detriment of the other communities here," he said. "Please consider, if you have federal funds come here, put them into the individual communities to promote the individual shipwrecks."
NOAA's public meetings continue from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 12, at the Lake Ontario Conference Center, 26 E. 1st Street, Oswego. The final meeting is scheduled for 6:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday, June 13, at Jefferson Community College, 1220 Coffen St, Jules Center, Room 6-002, Watertown.
Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.