By PAIGE HOUPT
Capital News Service
LANSING- Some lawmakers want to sink ships, aircrafts and cement structures in the Great Lakes to spur Michigan tourist revenue.
Some tourism officials question if the expensive and lengthy process of cleaning and sinking a vessel or aircraft will provide enough economic revenue. Others are concerned about environmental impacts.
But with nearly 10,000 shipwrecks at the bottom of the Great Lakes, recreational diving is already a popular activity in the state.
“Recreational diving tourism is a huge tax revenue source in other states such as Florida and California,” said Rep. Greg MacMaster, R-Kewadin.
MacMasters has introduced a bill to help fund the process of seeking old vessels from naval yards, and preserving and cleaning them. They would then be transported to a Great Lakes location and sunk.
“The idea is to bring in more recreational divers to Michigan,” MacMaster said.
“People can only dive for 20 to 50 minutes at a time, so the idea is they will stay in the hotels, eat out at the restaurants and stop and spend money in other towns.”
Michigan has significant strides in its tourism industry in the past decade, MacMaster said. That includes tourists who come for golfing, lighthouses, natural resources and now shipwrecks.
Joe Sobczak, owner of Thunder Bay Scuba in Alpena, Mich., says wreck diving is increasingly popular. In the past few years, there has been a significant increase of dive tourists from Canada and other Midwest states, he said.
“People love history and they are becoming more curious,” Sobczak said.
Underwater tourism is particularly popular in the late summer when the water is warm for divers, Sobczak said. Autumn is also a busy season since the water is still warm and clear near the bay.
Sobczak said he supports any type of wreck tourism promotion and the tax revenue it could bring to Alpena and Michigan.
“This would definitely increase the amount of tourism this hobby and state already receives,” Sobczak said.
However, he questions the risk of aquatic invasive species getting spread through the region from imported vessels that are sunk.
“Besides my fear of invasive species coming from theses ships, the transportation and recreation of sinking theses ships is by no means cheap.”
MacMasters seeks private funds.
“It will be 100 percent privately funded and we expect interest and advocacy groups to purchase and fund the cleaning process,” said Chris Bailey, legislative policy staffer for MacMasters.
Dive shops, underwater recreational groups, Michigan historic groups and even towns or villages are all examples of prospective groups with an interest in funding recreational wreck diving, Bailey said.
When the vessels are stripped of lead paint and the oil is cleaned out of the engine, as long as they are cleaned properly, there aren’t any environmental risks, said Wayne Lusardi, an archaeologist at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena, Mich.
“It doesn’t impose any risk initially, but eventually zebra mussels and algae will form a habitat naturally,” Lusardi said.
“But a project like this can take years, and a vast amount of resources and it’s very expensive.”
Recently, the Alpena Convention Visitors Bureau has started measuring the amount of tourism that wreck diving brings.
“In the past few years, this hobby has grown tremendously so at the moment we’re figuring out those numbers,” said Deb Pardike, executive director of the Alpena Convention Visitors Bureau.