Boating Tips ANGLERS BUILDING HABITAT Posted 3/11/2013 It has long been recognized that sunken ships and natural hard bottom areas are home to all manner of sea life, including recreationally popular gamefish. Anglers who discover such oases on the ocean bottom keep the “numbers” as secret as they would the combination to their safe deposit box. They also understand the value of creating habitats where no such structures currently exist in order to improve and encourage the growth of marine ecosystems. Welcome to the world of artificial reefs. Before artificial reef building became an organized process, there were some early efforts like the sinking of derelict ships that were quite successful. Other efforts, however, like sinking bundles of old tires, were not. Then about 40 years ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries division, working with coastal states, developed a formal plan for artificial reef creation and took the lead in approving reef sites for development. A new reef about to be deployed that was funded and built by the Emerald Coast Reef Association. Reef structures can be simple or complex, naturally occurring materials or manmade. In an effort to keep artificial reefs from becoming little more than ocean dump sites, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA®) and U.S. Coast Guard® were engaged to develop standards for the types of materials that could be used. This process has been fine-tuned over the years. Some of the criteria used to determine whether or not an item is appropriate for artificial reef formation include the estimated lifespan of the item on the ocean floor, its ability to remain where it is placed, and whether it is free from any substance that might cause pollution. Today, some of the items most commonly used as reef materials include all manner of concrete rubble, boats, barges, ships, dry docks, military vehicles, dredge rock, and even subway cars in addition to specially-constructed concrete and metal reef modules. Furthermore, experimental structures are being submerged onto reefs to investigate their applicability as habitat enhancing structures. Once artificial reef areas are designated by a state and approved by NOAA for development, where do all the reef materials and the funding to deploy them come from? In many states, the agencies in charge of managing marine fisheries take the lead in acquiring materials, but they often do so through public-private partnerships with recreational fishing and diving clubs that want to help promote reef construction. There are many non-profits set up specifically to help obtain reefing materials as well as provide funds necessary to clean the materials and sink them on site. Matching funds for reef building is available through the Sportfishing Restoration Fund that generates money from a federal excise tax on fishing tackle and marine recreational motor fuels. The end result of these partnerships is more viable fish habitats that expand fish populations and fishing opportunities. In addition, artificial reef building gives anglers the opportunity to have a very positive impact on fish and fishing. Structure-dependent fish like this black sea bass benefit immensely from the creation of artificial reefs. Candy Hansard is the director of the Emerald Coast Reef Association (www.ecreef.org) based out of the Destin, Fla. area. It is one of many organizations created for expanding artificial reef construction in coastal states. In a recent interview Candy explained ECRA’s mission is to improve the fishery by providing habitat. “We believe artificial reefs are the answer to many of the problems facing our fisheries,” she said. “Our members are a friendly group of fishermen and divers who have a passion for our fisheries and for fishing. They get involved because they want to help build reefs in an effort to help generate healthy, sustainable fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico.” The ECRA’ motto is simple and to the point—Building Better Bottom—and it explains the whole concept of artificial reef building not only in the Gulf, but in most of the coastal states. The seafloor off the Florida panhandle is 95 percent sandy bottom, a less than ideal habitat for fish species like grouper and snapper, which are structure-dependent. But artificial reefs benefit other species, too. Reef materials are quickly overgrown with anchoring organisms from corals to barnacles, clams, mussels and starfish. They are also quickly inhabited by crabs, shrimp, lobster and other species that live in and around the structure. They also attract schools of baitfish that use the structure to feed and hide. All this forage attracts predator species. The more reefs present, the more the life-sustaining habitat and fish populations expand. An artificial reef is a focal point for a vibrant marine ecosystem. “Our amazingly diverse fishery in the Florida Panhandle area is due to the public and private artificial reef building efforts that support fish stocks,” said Hansard. “This provides recreational opportunities for our community and economic prosperity for our coastal businesses.” ECRA is just one of dozens of angler-based organizations that are doing the exact same thing, and as more fishermen learn about them and get involved, artificial reef building itself is expanding. One of the oldest and most successful artificial reef-building programs can be found off the coast of New Jersey. It was founded in 1984 with the express purpose of creating a network of artificial reefs to provide a hard substrate for fish, shellfish and crustaceans, fishing grounds for anglers, and underwater structures for scuba divers. Today, the program has blossomed into 15 artificial reef sites that encompass over 25 square miles of sea bottom. It is overseen by the Bureau of Marine Fisheries, which works in concert with private citizens, anglers and dive clubs, conservation organizations, businesses and even the military to obtain and place the massive amounts of reefing materials. The productivity of New Jersey’s reefs is nothing short of amazing. In recent years, one in every three fish caught by recreational fishermen has been caught on the reefs, yet they encompass less than one percent of the sea floor found off the state’s shoreline. In addition, recent scientific evaluations have shown that these reefs don’t just concentrate existing fish, but actually provide the habitat necessary for fish populations to expand. If you live and fish in a coastal state, chances are there is an organization nearby that is actively working to build artificial reefs. They always need volunteers and funds to continue their work, which provides you with an excellent opportunity to help build a brighter future for saltwater fishing for yourself and your kids and grandkids.