Photograph by James L. Stanfield, Nat Geo Image Collection
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A fleet of wooden steamships from World War I fill the waters of Mallows Bay in Maryland.

Photograph by James L. Stanfield, Nat Geo Image Collection

'Ghost fleet' of sunken warships declared a national marine sanctuary

Local wildlife thrives amid more than a hundred shipwrecks and archaeological treasures at the Mallows Bay-Potomac River site in Maryland.

A century ago, dozens of shipyards across the United States constructed a fleet of wooden steamships to aid the fight against Germany during World War I. Today, ospreys nest on the boats, and bats breed in the hull. More than 100 of these historic vessels survive, serving as a half-submerged home for fish, beavers, waterfowl, and vegetation along a stretch of the Potomac River next to Mallows Bay, Maryland.

On Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration designated the 18-square-mile area a national marine sanctuary—the first in nearly two decades. The Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary holds not only remains of the “ghost fleet” of WWI vessels, but also Civil War-era shipwrecks, and Native American archaeological sites dating back 12,000 years.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson created the U.S. Emergency Fleet Corporation, which began building hundreds of ships to combat the destructive German U-boats sinking merchant and passenger ships in the Atlantic. Plagued by mechanical and construction issues, none of the ships actually made it to Europe during the war. After, most of them were moved along the Potomac to be salvaged by a local company that later abandoned them in Mallows Bay. Despite their place on the sidelines, the ships “reflected the massive national wartime effort that drove the expansion and economic development of communities and related maritime service industries,” NOAA noted in the sanctuary announcement. (Watch how the SS Cuba shipwreck became a marine refuge.)

Watch: WWI German U-boat discovered off the coast of Belgium

Public officials and conservationists in Maryland first nominated the site in 2014, hoping to encourage tourism, education initiatives, and spur new jobs. It also wanted to increase monitoring of the site and acquire federal funds. There was pushback at the time from locals who made their living from the Potomac and feared additional regulations would hurt their business, and the nomination stalled on the governor’s desk.

Mallows Bay is already a popular tourist spot, where visitors can kayak through shipwrecks and observe an array of wildlife, including bald eagles and osprey. (Here are the world's best shipwreck dive sites.)

The National Marine Sanctuary System, encompassing 13 sanctuaries and two marine national monuments, protects 430 shipwrecks and sunken aircraft. The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve was the last site to get a NOAA designation in 2000. After, Congress paused future sanctuaries until NOAA could determine it had the resources to manage existing inventory. The Mallows Bay-Potomac River site won’t become official until a 45-day period, during which the House and Senate can hold hearings about the designation.