The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve is the thirteenth National Marine Sanctuary in a system that extends from American Samoa to Massachusetts. Thunder Bay NMS/UP protects a nationally significant collection of over 100 shipwrecks, spanning over a century of Great Lakes shipping history.
The violence of the storms that plagued Thunder Bay may be rooted in Native American legend, but the storms were an unpleasant and deadly reality to hundreds of unfortunate 19th century American vessels crossing the Great Lakes en route to the new country’s western lands. The Great Lakes had become an important passageway and trade route in an area where roads were few and land transportation was slow and difficult.
Thunder Bay, Mich., lies off the coast of Alpena, Mich., in Lake Huron. Mariners knew they could find shelter from gales in the bay. But strong unexpected storms—“white squalls”—often prevented a ship from crossing the bay mouth. Thunder Bay Island, a small island just outside the north end of the bay, also added to the mariners’ troubles. When vessels tried to navigate Lake Huron’s sudden storms and thick fog on their way to the lumber port of Alpena, they often failed to clear the small island. After so many shipwrecks, the area earned the nickname “Shipwreck Alley.” In fact, more than 100 wrecks have been discovered in the area, and many others are thought to rest in the area still undiscovered.
Thunder Bay is the resting place for an unusual number of steel propellers, especially those from a critical period in American history when vessel design was changing rapidly (c. 1880-1920). Shipwrecked vessels represent all major trades that were the backbone of Great Lakes commerce, including wood products, grain, iron ore, coal, and passenger and package freight.
With such historical significance, the area may soon be added to the National Register of Historic Places, a designation that affords even greater protection. In fact, a study exploring this possibility concluded that the site could shed light on the various phases of American maritime history and vessel use between 1840 and 1970. It might also hold secrets to understanding westward expansion via the Great Lakes, phases of American industrialization and other topics (Martin, 1996). One sunken vessel, the Isaac M Scott, could be used to study the Great Storm of 1913—a catastrophic event that destroyed the ship and led to regional, national and international repercussions.
Genesis of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Alpena residents, including the Thunder Bay Diving Club and several civic organizations, began to lobby for state protection of the Thunder Bay shipwrecks in the early 1970s. Their efforts led to the establishment of the Thunder Bay Underwater Preserve in 1981, the first underwater preserve in the state of Michigan. In 1983, a group of conservation-minded Alpena residents proposed to NOAA that Thunder Bay be designated as a national marine sanctuary. After eight years on the site evaluation list, the site was designated as an active candidate for national marine sanctuary protection in 1991, citing its important cultural significance.
In October 1991, NOAA held public meetings in Alpena and Lansing, Mich., to gauge public opinion about Thunder Bay and to learn more about the bay’s resources, activities and associated management issues. For the next three years, NOAA met with local, state, federal and tribal agencies, organizations, and businesses to discuss the scope and feasibility of a Thunder Bay sanctuary.
In 1994, a Thunder Bay core group composed of representatives from local, state, federal and tribal agencies was formed. Within a year, the core group narrowed the scope of the preserve management focus to include only underwater cultural resources (e.g., shipwrecks), thus excluding the management of natural resources, which were already being managed by authorized agencies and existing laws. In June 1997, the core group published a draft environmental impact statement and draft management plan (EIS/MP). Later that year, the Sanctuary Advisory Council, composed of members from the community, the state and NOAA, was established to advise NOAA and the governor of Michigan during the sanctuary designation process.
Meanwhile, the local citizens expressed their frustration with the process. In November 1997, Alpena residents voted against the proposed sanctuary in a nonbinding referendum (1,770 to 776). Despite the defeat, NOAA decided to continue the sanctuary designation process because the agency believed Thunder Bay was a unique cultural resource and deserved protection (GLERL, 2001). The agency vowed to address local and state concerns, which centered on the fear that the federal government would preempt local authority and restrict use of the Bay. Michigan Gov. John Engler encouraged NOAA to continue with the project provided the agency appropriately protect state and local rights.
NOAA completed a final EIS/MP in June 1999. Michigan, however, published its own plan—the “Michigan Option”—two months later. The state plan stressed the need for a state and federal partnership to manage the sanctuary jointly and emphasized recreational uses of the site (Brody, 2001). Less than a year later, NOAA and the state of Michigan reached an agreement on the management of the sanctuary, and on Oct. 7, 2000, the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve became the 13th national marine sanctuary.
The agreement created a joint management committee with representatives from both NOAA and the state of Michigan to ensure equal state and federal participation in the management of the sanctuary. NOAA also agreed to reduce the size of the proposed sanctuary from 808 square miles to 448 square miles. Finally, Michigan agreed to commit $1 million for management of the sanctuary over the course of five years.
NOAA and Michigan also agreed to revisit the management plan in 2005, when both parties will determine the extent to which the management plan and the partnership have been successful. NOAA will repropose a plan that reflects any outstanding mutual concerns. NOAA also agreed to obtain approval from the governor before changing the scope of sanctuary management, promulgating any regulations or establishing any user fees.
Managing Thunder Bay
The management plan establishes numerous goals for the management of and educational and research uses of the newly designated sanctuary. In addition to establishing partnerships and coordinating activities with local agencies and organizations, NOAA plans to implement an enforcement program with the help of local authorities.
Activities that may damage the cultural resources are prohibited in the sanctuary. For instance, any activities that involve the recovery, alteration or destruction of any of the shipwrecks are prohibited. In addition, drilling or dredging of the lake bottom within the sanctuary is prohibited, and the use of grappling hooks or anchors in areas that could damage the shipwrecks is not permitted. Any activities involving the use of natural resources, however, are not affected. For instance, visitors can still fish, boat and dive within the sanctuary, and user fees are not imposed.
NOAA and its partners also plan to establish the sanctuary as an educational resource and research center. They plan to establish a Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena to promote awareness of underwater cultural resources, act as a clearinghouse for educational materials and encourage volunteer involvement. Other plans include developing a “Thunder Bay Shipwreck Trail” and installing underwater video hookups for nondivers to view the wrecks from shore.
NOAA is in the process of mapping the shipwrecks and conducting a detailed archeological study of one wreck, the New Orleans. By promoting more research activities, NOAA hopes to inventory all of the Bay’s underwater cultural resources, determine their intrinsic and monetary value, and ensure their protection from existing and potential threats.
- Brody, E., Acting Sanctuary Manager. 2001. Personal Communication.
- Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. 2001. The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve Web site.
- Martin, J. 1996. Preliminary comparative and theme study of national historic landmark potential for Thunder Bay, Michigan. Lansing, MI: Great Lakes Visual/Research Inc.
- National Marine Sanctuaries (NMS). 2001. The National Marine Sanctuary Program’s Web site.
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 1999. Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary: A Federal/State Partnership for the Management of Underwater Cultural Resources. Final Environmental Impact Statement/Management Plan. Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management.
Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the National Marine Protected Areas Center. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the National Marine Protected Areas Center should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.