More than three centuries of thriving marine commerce and those notorious storms in the Great Lakes have given Michigan a wealth of historic shipwrecks. There are nearly a thousand on the bottomlands of the state's 13 designated underwater preserves alone. But Michigan's mostly volunteer system of protecting the shipwrecks is showing signs of trouble.
Here's a scenario that makes underwater preserve expert Ron Bloomfield wince. A diver comes to Michigan specifically to explore a wreck in remote Lake Superior. He knows the lake's cold, clear waters have left the wooden ship in pristine condition. He charters a boat to take him out...
"And he gets to the spot and can't find a buoy. That's a really bad thing to have happen, because then likely he's going to throw an anchor over the side and they're going to hook into the wreck and that can just cause all kinds of damage," he says.
This kind of thing is happening too often now, says Bloomfield. He's a past president of the non-profit Michigan Underwater Preserve Council. Managing the preserves is officially the job of the state Department of Natural Resources. But he says they don't have enough money to assign enough staff to the preserves.
So most of the work falls on volunteers. Unfortunately, the corps of volunteers assigned to the preserves is shrinking. Younger folks aren't moving in to replace volunteers who've gotten too old to do the work, and there's no state funding to reimburse volunteers for gasoline, buoys, and other equipment.
"There are people who have got out of it because they were having to put too much of their own money out of pocket," he says.
But Bloomfield says interest in exploring shipwrecks is only increasing, especially among kayakers. He says the state should consider reimbursing volunteers for their time and expenses, and boosting the budget of the Department of Natural Resources for underwater preserve management.