Old Wilson Bridge wreckage dumped for a giant anglers' reef off southern Maryland

Fish to find home in a sunken commuter curse

September 26, 2006|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,sun reporter

Ridge -- The old Woodrow Wilson Bridge sleeps with the fishes.

Chunk by chunk, the bridge that linked Maryland to Virginia and was the bane of commuters in the Interstate 95 corridor, is being hauled to the waters off this St. Mary's County community to create a home for striped bass, bluefish and oysters.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Bill Curry, president of the Coastal Conservation Association's Maryland chapter, as a massive backhoe shoved a slab of concrete off a barge and into the water yesterday. "This is a huge boon for recreational anglers on the Chesapeake Bay."

Artificial reefs are nothing new. Maryland has 20 others in the bay - from just off Pooles Island in the north to Tangier Sound in the south - and several offshore from Ocean City.

But the demolition of the Wilson Bridge in August created a wealth of fish habitat, enough to fill 60 barges - each the size of a football field - for the waters here and to augment reefs off Solomons and Tangier islands.

"There is just a mother lode of material, sitting, waiting. What we don't have is the funding to get the job done," said Marty Gary, a fisheries biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. "The [Wilson Bridge] contractor is willing to share costs, but that's money the department doesn't have."

The DNR diverted this year $38,000 in funds generated from fishing license sales to get the program going. It is looking to the legislature and fishing and conservation groups to keep it on track.

"We can reach about a dozen sites from the Wilson Bridge," Gary said. "Reef building is one of our highest priorities,"

Artificial reefs have a checkered past in Maryland.

The state had an active reef-building program from 1980 to the mid-1990s, when it fell victim to budget cuts.

In 2001, Ocean City officials cited pollution concerns when they canceled a contract that would have allowed the New York City Transit Authority to dump as many as 1,300 subway cars in the Atlantic Ocean to form an artificial reef. Federal environmental officials said the fears were unfounded, and the cars were instead dumped 19 miles off the Delaware shore.

But the Ocean City Artificial Reef Foundation, a nonprofit group, has sunk everything from old warships to broken concrete to Army tanks off the coast. More recently, the state has embraced efforts by school groups and organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association to place "reef balls" and chunks of rubble from Memorial Stadium on the bay floor.

However, some charter boat captains complain that the reefs aren't always placed where they can do the most good.

"We have some that are duds, for sure," Gary acknowledged. "But we've already got a site here that we know fish are using. We're really optimistic it will work here."

The budding reef is within an area called Point No Point, just north of Point Lookout State Park and the mouth of the Potomac River.

The process of creating the reef began quite by accident in the mid-1980s, when a barge loaded with oyster shells foundered and sank. A few years later, another barge sank about 60 yards away.

Charter captains noticed that the two wrecks attracted fish the way other structures did, such as bridge pilings and docks, and lobbied for the dumping of more material.

Although the state supported their request, it was literally stymied in moving from the abstract to the concrete.

"It takes a lot of material to make a reef," said charter Capt. Greg Madjeski, who worked with the state on designing the new underwater structure. "And it's not easy to move it from a construction site onto the water."

Slightly more than 100 nautical miles from Point No Point, the old Wilson Bridge was a perfect match.

One of the two spans of the new $2.4 billion Wilson Bridge opened for traffic in June. Before construction teams blew up a portion of the old bridge, the concrete decking - 130 sections in all - was removed and stockpiled.

The first load of slabs was hauled down the Potomac and dropped in the bay Aug. 2; the second barge load followed about three weeks later.

Gary said there's plenty more raw material at the construction site.

Gary and Madjeski say when the reef is finished, it will be an east-west underwater bridge about 20 feet high between the two barges and beyond that will cover 1,000 acres.

Fish - striped bass, sea trout and flounder - will congregate around the reef to catch their food, attracting anglers bent on the same goal. Oysters and crabs also will be drawn to the reef, said Madjeski, who likened it to an artificial reef off Virginia's Northern Neck that swarms with boats.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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