Building `reefs'

Chunks of concrete are being submerged in the bay for habitat - but commercial watermen are skeptical

May 21, 2007|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

OFF TOLCHESTER BEACH -- The skies were a worrisome gray, and the wind was strong enough to knock over even the most seasoned seaman. Fishermen who had mulled a day on the water seemed to have quickly scrapped their plans - for miles, the Chesapeake Bay seemed almost deserted.

But then the Patricia Campbell plowed through the whitecaps. The crew aboard the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's 60-foot research vessel hoisted a crane, loaded several concrete balls filled with holes and dropped them into the water. They kept at it as the wind whipped until all 95 "reef balls" aboard were submerged near Kent County.

Watching from a friend's boat, William Huppert couldn't help but smile. Several years after he brought one of the first artificial reefs to Maryland from Florida, the concept of putting concrete in the water to create habitat for fish and crabs was no longer a pipe dream.

"These reefs create areas where all kinds of organisms can grow," said Huppert, a member of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association who organized the drop. "They cannot live in the silt."

Though commercial watermen question their value, reefs made of concrete have become an established way of restoring habitat in a bay that is increasingly faced with oversedimentation of its best fishing areas. Concrete reefs attract oysters, mussels and barnacles, which in turn attract fish, crabs and other marine life.

State officials have worked with the bay foundation and various fishing groups to create 20 artificial reefs in the bay, stretching from the upper reaches near the Susquehanna River to the briny waters of Tangier Sound. Parts of old Memorial Stadium, where Orioles great Jim Palmer threw rising fastballs before he began pitching home equity loans, now sleeps with the fishes near Tolchester. And parts of the old Woodrow Wilson Bridge, long a choke point for Washington-area commuters, have been submerged off St. Mary's County.

Since January, the Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative, a partnership that includes the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, fishing groups and several businesses, has raised nearly $1 million to put the rest of the Wilson Bridge in the bay. About half the money has come from a state bond issue; the contractors dismantling the bridge also are paying a share.

Now the group hopes to raise $250,000 so Maryland can deposit hundreds of subway cars near Ocean City, where artificial reef enthusiasts already have sunk old warships and Army tanks.

"The bay's natural habitat has disappeared," said Robert Glenn, executive director for the state chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, which has been a leader in the initiative. "These artificial reefs basically provide marine habitat for all kinds of creatures, from the bottom of the food chain to the top."

Not everyone believes that the construction industry's trash is the Chesapeake's treasure. Watermen have long thrown cold water on the artificial reef idea, saying that the main benefit is to attract fish to a particular spot and thus reel in a bigger catch for recreational anglers.

"They don't know ... the long-term effects of putting this old bridge in, with everything that it has accumulated," said Jack Fringer, a Southern Maryland crabber. "We should be more concerned with improving the health of the bay than just dumping things in there so fishermen have a place to catch more fish."

Fringer said the large pieces of debris have been an obstacle to setting crab pots. And though the reefs attract oysters, watermen can only harvest them by diving - their dredging gear cannot remove the bivalves from concrete.

Maryland Watermen's Association President Larry Simns said he does not object to the concept of artificial reefs, but that everything should be broken into small pieces so biologists can remove them if a problem crops up. Subway cars and concrete chunks weighing several tons are in the bay for good, and they're not going to help clean up pollution, he said.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's junk that someone wants to get rid of," said Simns, a charter boat captain in Rock Hall. "You can't call it a conservation measure. What you're doing is making it easier to catch fish. And there's nothing wrong with that, but don't say it's something else."

Proponents acknowledge that not all reef sites have worked out over the years. An idea to place underwater kites tethered to the bottom near Sharps Island turned out to be a bust when the kites collapsed. And a reef made out of 3,000 tires collected by Huppert and other volunteers became silted over shortly after it was dumped near Hart-Miller Island in Baltimore County.

But DNR fisheries ecologist Martin Gary said there is no danger in putting concrete, which has long been recognized as an excellent substrate for mollusks and fish habitat, in the water. When the reefs are in the right place, Gary said, they bring life to a bay that struggles under what he calls "a ubiquitous, smothering, suffocating layer of silt."

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