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MEQUON - There may not be buried treasure, but the 37 known shipwrecks off the Wisconsin coast of Lake Michigan are valuable enough that they may soon be protected.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is looking to designate a 1,075-square-mile area of Lake Michigan as a National Marine Sanctuary.

Much of the cargo has value for the historical aspect with two of Wisconsin’s oldest shipwrecks from the 1830s included in the proposed sanctuary area. According to Russ Green, NOAA’s regional coordinator for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, most of the ships sank between the 1830s and the late 1920s.

Green gave a presentation about the proposal to the Mequon Common Council on Feb. 14. Mequon is one of five principal cities involved with the project, which also includes Port Washington, Sheboygan, Manitowoc and Two Rivers.

City Administrator Will Jones, who Green said has been a big supporter of the proposal, called this a “rather unique initiative.”

The National Marine Sanctuary was announced in 2015 and stretches across Manitowoc, Sheboygan and Ozaukee counties. Green said there are 14 National Marine Sanctuaries around the globe that are “naturally-based but also culturally-based.”

NOAA is looking for public input on the proposed sanctuary through the end of March. One point of input NOAA desires is whether or not to include Kewaunee County in the sanctuary area.

Green said after the public comment period, he’s hoping to have an environmental impact statement created by fall with the registration as a National Marine Sanctuary potentially a year away.

The reasoning behind the creation of this sanctuary isn't solely for protecting the shipwrecks, but also to educate people about their existence, as well as increase safe access. Green said there have been cases of looting of such shipwrecks but those instances are going down. He said the artifacts must be preserved because they, too, tell a story.

“We want to make it easy to visit but protect the ships at the same time,” he said. “We want you to dive, but dive responsibly.”

Green said the “state has a history of protecting maritime heritage history” and this would only add to that. He said such a designation would likely increase "heritage tourism," creating a positive economic impact.

Many of the ships are visible for kayakers and snorkelers so you don’t have to be a full SCUBA diver to enjoy them, he said. Additionally, shipwrecks will have buoys nearby to allow boats to tie off to them, eliminating the chance of an anchor damaging a wreck, Green added.

Green said once the area is designated as a National Marine Sanctuary, more research can be done. Additionally, he said such a designation opens up opportunities for international events.

The sanctuary would be under the authority of an advisory council of about 30 members with state and NOAA law enforcement working to protect the area.

Jones said there will be a resolution to support the proposed sanctuary at the March common council meeting.

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