Wisconsin - Lake Michigan Marine Sanctuary

The Great Lakes and their connecting waterways provide a natural highway extending over a thousand miles into the heart of North America. For millennia these inland seas served as important lines of trade and communication for Native Americans. During the 1800s and early 1900s, the Great Lakes evolved from an isolated maritime frontier into the Nation’s busiest waterway, where innovative ships moved raw materials in larger quantities and at lower costs than ever before. 

During this period entrepreneurs and shipbuilders on the Great Lakes launched tens of thousands of ships of many different designs. Sailing schooners, grand palace steamers, revolutionary propeller driven passenger ships, and industrial bulk carriers transported America’s business and industry. In the process they brought hundreds of thousands of people to the Midwest and made possible the dramatic growth of the region’s farms, cities, and industries. Indeed, the Midwest and United States could not have developed with such vast economic success without the Great Lakes.  But with success sometimes comes adversity. An estimated 6,000 shipwrecks have occurred on the Great Lakes. In Lake Huron, the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary protects nearly 100 historic shipwrecks and has helped promote heritage tourism and economic development in Alpena, Michigan. 

Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan coastal communities have long celebrated their centuries-old relationship with the Great Lakes.  Historic shipwrecks are a fascinating and unique aspect of the area’s rich maritime heritage, reflecting the innovation, tenacity, and entrepreneurial spirit of generations of Americans. They are nationally significant archaeological and historical sites, and world-class recreational destinations. Protecting these places, while increasing public access and driving heritage tourism, can have positive economic, educational, and cultural benefits for coastal communities.


A Marine Sanctuary is a protected underwater region or “safe haven” that preserves the natural environment, ecosystem and/or cultural & historical resources. SEAS supports the mission of Protecting the Great Lakes and their rich maritime history through research, education and resource protection.



In 2014 Governor Walker submitted a successful national marine sanctuary nomination to NOAA on behalf of the State of Wisconsin and the coastal communities of Two Rivers, Manitowoc, Sheboygan, and Port Washington. In January 2017, based on the nomination, NOAA proposed designation of the 1,075 square-mile Wisconsin-Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary which would protect 37 historic shipwrecks and related underwater heritage sites. 

Spanning the 1800s through the early twentieth century, these sites are well preserved by Lake Michigan’s cold, fresh water. Eighteen of the sites are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and archival research indicates that as many as 80 shipwrecks are yet to be discovered. The designation builds on nearly 30 years of research and outreach by the Wisconsin Historical Society’s nationally recognized maritime archaeology and preservation program. The sanctuary would be co-managed by NOAA and the State of Wisconsin.

Through research, resource protection, education, and community engagement, the proposed sanctuary seeks to protect these nationally-significant sites for future generations. Learn more about the proposal and find out how to submit comments.

SEAS is proud to be working with NOAA and our sister communities up and down the Wisconsin coast of Lake Michigan, to establish a Marine Sanctuary for the preservation of our incredible shipwrecks. Our hope is to have a series of destinations along the coast featuring different aspects of our maritime heritage, underwater treasures, cultural, and technological educational opportunities. We will keep you up to date on the progress of this exciting and important project.