Saving Mallows Bay

Mallows Bay – Potomac River is a 14 square mile area of the tidal Potomac River adjacent to Charles County. It was nominated as a national marine sanctuary through the Sanctuary Nomination Process with broad community support.

Mallows Bay is a largely undeveloped landscape and waterscape identified as one of the most ecologically valuable in Maryland, as the ship remains provide important habitat for fish and wildlife, including rare, threatened and endangered species.

Mallows Bay © Donald G. Shomette

The decision about whether or not to make Mallows Bay a marine sanctuary opens another discussion around whether the institutions and ideas that support them will work very well in the 21st century. Should conservation institutions and specific ideas about nature, borne from romantic, hierarchical, or oppositional logics of  the 19th and 20th centuries, continue to be applied in the 21st century?

Clare Fieseler argues that Mallows Bay should not be saved. Her reasoning, pitched against her personal enchantment with the bay, is that there are other places that are in greater need of protection. There are other places that are more worthy, and that in the Anthropocene, we are pushed to make these sorts of reasoned and pragamtic decisions about what should and should not be saved. (Or perhaps, can and cannot be saved, as the anthropos pushes harder upon the earth.)

Mallows Bay is less-worthy in part because its current shape is formed from a ship graveyard. The oblong atolls are the hulls of sunken ships built for the Revolutionary and First World Wars.

Valuable metals and scraps were salvaged, and then the ‘waste’ left behind to the elements and to the environment into which they were put. The Mallows Bay ecosystem assimilated the ships and its current form was estabilished. It is now home to bald eagles, heron, deer, turtles, bass and osprey, according to the Chesapeake Conservancy.

This pattern of ecological human disturbance and re-stablishment in another form – servicable to both humans and non-humans alike – is a common pattern. And the question of how to understand and value these hybrid places is something I wanted to inquire into with the Sites of Special Scientific Interest project.

Fieseler challenges herself to let go of her romantic notions of nature (drawing from Jedediah Purdy), in order to take a pragmatic stance towards saving Mallows Bay. But this too has its problems.

Is saving Mallows Bay in the form of a National Marine Sanctuary necessary? Does saving Mallows Bay necessarily mean that other places cannot be saved? Subscribing to trade-off logic implies that a budget of some measure exists and that we can only afford to draw boundaries around or give attention to some environmental concerns. This scarcity reasoning must invoke a heirarchy of values in order to decide what to prioritise.

Bruno Latour encourages us to love our monsters, to love the things that we have created even if they are monsters. Mallows Bay is clearly not a monster, but it is certainly less-loveable than other places and so will likely suffer when put into a hierarchy that values pristine nature above hybrid-nature and/or ship graveyards (as reasons and emotions dictate).

If Mallows Bay is loved instead of ‘saved’ what would this mean for its sanctuary status? Is legally roping off segments of nature still useful in the Anthropocene? Jamie Lorimer has argued for a move away from enclosed national parks and towards a more open and exprimental mode of conservation. And that, nature ‘out there’ actually becomes impossible in the Anthropocene.

Mallows Bay, natural or not, beautiful or not, valuable or not is now an established home to the many organsisms of the area and a place for human tourism and reflection upon ourselves. It is an especially aesthetic historical reminder of our (unique in the natural world) relationship to waste, in that we are constantly generating it and still don’t quite know what to do with it. Away, away, also becomes less possible in the Anthropocene.

The decision on Mallows Bay will not be made for some time yet. I hope Mallows Bay and its inhabitants are not saved. But I do hope that they are loved.