The 875-square-mile area of Lake Michigan encompasses 33 known shipwrecks and countless others.
Sanctuaries are established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Agency spokeswoman Ellen Brody said she expects the first applications to begin arriving in the fall.
Manitowoc County officials plan to be among those applying, citing tourism and educational benefits. A successful application would lead to more research on local shipwrecks and also allow more access for sport divers, students and the general public, said Jason Ring, the president of the Manitowoc Area Visitor & Convention Bureau.
To be considered for sanctuary status, a community has to demonstrate having environmental and cultural significance. Other factors include education and research opportunities, the level of community support and existing regulations that could aid conservation efforts.
The only Great Lakes sanctuary to date is Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena, Michigan. Its visitor center attracts more than 80,000 people per year, a tourism boon for Alpena and its 12,000 residents.
The 448-square-mile sanctuary is home to more than 40 known wrecks, and more may yet be discovered, said Stephanie Gandulla, Thunder Bay's maritime archaeologist and media coordinator.
"There's so many significant shipwrecks here," she said. "The stories they tell are so important to our national history."
Brody said Thunder Bay's success could bode well for Wisconsin tourism.
Rolf Johnson, the chief executive of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, said the sanctuary could focus new attention on an area whose history is sometimes overlooked.
The application process is "giving us a chance to really highlight the importance of underwater archaeology as a science," he said, adding that shipwrecks have a meaningful story to tell about the communities' shared maritime heritage.