Major Shipwreck Survey Off Coast Underway

OCEAN CITY — A major effort is underway to identify and catalogue thousands of vessels shipwrecked off the U.S. coastline decades ago, including a vast area off Maryland’s coast, to determine which pose significant threats of breaking apart.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) this summer is undertaking an ambitious project to identify and catalogue as many as 30,000 vessels shipwrecked off the nation’s coast, many of which were sunk by German U-boats during World War II, that now pose a serious threat of corroding or breaking apart and dumping potentially harmful oil and other cargo into the ocean and ultimately onto the nation’s beaches.

Some were shipwrecked in storms while others collided with other vessels and sank. Quite a few more were torpedoed by German U-boats during the Battle of the Atlantic waged off the mid-Atlantic coast during World War II, taking their potentially harmful cargo to the bottom of the sea just a mere few miles from the Ocean City coast in many cases.

Decades later, the sunken vessels are showing signs of corroding and breaking up, creating potentially harmful oil spills that could find their way to beaches throughout the mid-Atlantic, including Ocean City. In response, NOAA has embarked on a project to identify the thousands of wrecks and create a prioritized list of those most likely to need monitoring or proactive mitigation.

“This is an issue the federal government is working on,” said Lisa Symons, Damage Assessment and Resource Protection Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Marine Sanctuaries this week. “A lot of vessels went down with the their fuel tanks full and with potentially harmful cargo on board. Once these vessels reach 60 or 70 years old, they start to break down and deteriorate and can cause a whole lot of problems.”

Symons said NOAA is preparing a list of all potentially harmful wrecks in U.S. waters all over the country, including the mid-Atlantic and the area off Maryland’s coast, where a handful of wrecks have already been identified.

“We have a list for all U.S. waters and we’re going through that list vessel by vessel and see what if any remediation efforts are necessary,” she said. “Through our survey, we’re trying to find out what happened to them, what their current status is, and what, if any, salvage efforts are required.”

The working list includes several wrecks off the mid-Atlantic coast including Maryland. For example, the unarmed and unescorted “W.L. Steed,” an oil tanker carrying 66,000 barrels of crude oil was torpedoed by a German U-boat about 90 miles off Maryland’s coast in February 1942. In another example off the mid-Atlantic coast, the Norwegian tanker “Varanger” was carrying 12,750 tons of fuel oil when a German U-boat fired a torpedo into her hull and sank the vessel about 28 miles southeast of Atlantic City, N.J. in January 1942.

The unescorted and unarmed “India Arrow,” carrying 88,000 gallons of diesel fuel, was torpedoed and sunk during World War II just 20 miles southeast of Cape May, N.J. In a more contemporary example not related to World War II, the 607-foot “Marine Electric” went down in a fierce winter storm in 1983 just 30 miles off the coast of Chincoteague, taking its cargo of 25,000 tons of coal to the bottom off Maryland and Virginia’s coast.

Symons said those vessels and countless others are being explored to determine their current condition and what, if any, environmental threats they pose as they continue to deteriorate and break up.

“We’re going to identify where they are and what might be aboard still,” she said. “We’re gathering the information and try to prioritize the list to determine which vessels are or aren’t a potential threat.”

NOAA will provide for the Coast Guard a list of vessels that require simple monitoring and a list of those vessels deemed candidates for a proactive removal of potentially harmful cargo.

“It’s a lot less expensive to do a proactive removal than a clean-up of a spill,” she said. “It’s always easier to take oil off a ship than removing it after a spill. In a spill cleanup, the best-case scenario is usually a 30-percent recovery. That figure goes up dramatically when we’re dealing with oil from a specific location.”

Symons said many of the vessels on the list are well documented, while only scant information is known about others.

“We don’t have good location information for all of the vessels,” she said. “Some went down in the middle of the night and during World War II, they didn’t have GPS or a lot of the navigational information we have now.”

NOAA is conducting a similar operation off the coast of the Outer Banks in an area called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” where as many as 90 vessels were torpedoed during World War II. That work is more of a historical and cultural expedition than an environmental one.

“We’re cataloguing World War II wrecks from a historical standpoint and potential environmental impacts are not our top priority, but the work we’re doing and the knowledge we collect is helpful in the much larger effort,” said David Alberg, superintendent of the USS Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

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