WATERTOWN — The advisory group leading the planning to establish a large section of eastern Lake Ontario as a nationally recognized marine sanctuary took a major step toward its establishment Thursday.

The Sanctuary Advisory Council voted to formally send its draft management plan, one of the two major policy documents setting the structure of the proposed sanctuary, to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal entity that carries out the recognition process.

“Congratulations for unanimous support for the draft management plan going forward, a fantastic step for our council at this point,” Council Chair Bill Crist said after the council voted. “I’m just delighted to know that we have the full support of the Sanctuary Advisory Council going forward.”

The process to establish the proposed Lake Ontario Marine Sanctuary began earlier this year after some local leaders, namely Oswego County Administrator Phil Church, applied for consideration for the program. If established, the proposed sanctuary would create a zone encompassing much of the eastern part of the lake from Wayne County to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in Cape Vincent. The designation would create a bridge for NOAA to help pilot and fund education, tourism and recreation initiatives primarily surrounding the dozens of shipwrecks in the proposed area.

From here, the plan now goes to the NOAA staff for review. It will then be paired with a draft Environmental Impact Statement which is written by NOAA. Ellen Brody, NOAA great lakes regional coordinator for the marine sanctuary program, told the council the draft environmental statement should be completed within the next few months.

“We don’t have a complete document together, but the chapters are in various stage of review. So, I’m feeling pretty positive about where we’re going,” Ms. Brody said.

The two documents will then be put out for public review in communities around the sanctuary sometime in the mid to late spring. From there, it will need final approvals at the state and federal levels. When asked if the approval could get caught up in the change of administrations at the federal level, Ms. Brody indicated the program was likely safe.

“It’s unlikely that this will get caught up in politics,” Ms. Brody said. “We have no reason to believe that it would. Now, things could happen, but I will say that having local support, is not everything, but it is influential.”

In August, Ms. Brody and Mr. Church presented to the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators about the possibility of extending the sanctuary boundaries further up-river to encompass two shipwrecks off the town of Hammond. She said language suggesting the extension up-river will be included in NOAA’s draft environmental impact statement and may be included in the final sanctuary designation depending on public input.

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