Habitat Under the Sea

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Georgia’s reefs might be man-made, but the abundant marine life—and the fishing fun—is the genuine article.

By Risa Merl

shutterstock_126702104Discarded subway cars, decommissioned army battle tanks and abandoned chicken coops lie scattered on the ocean floor, up and down the Atlantic coast. The items—coming from as far off as New York City and as nearby as local farms—are seen by most humans as decrepit, no longer useful pieces of trash. But these very special materials are actually treasures—each has been thoughtfully repurposed to start anew, creating Georgia’s vibrant artificial reef system, and dynamic habitats for abundant sea life.

Though the state of Georgia is blessed with 100 miles of coastline, only 5 percent of its continental shelf hosts natural reefs. The rest is dominated by man-made items that have found a home on the seafloor, and have in turn provided new homes for marine creatures. These artificial reefs have created easily accessible wonderlands for advanced scuba divers and recreational and commercial fishermen alike.

“The whole goal of the program is to enhance the existing marine habitats,” says January Murray of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Murray is the manager in charge of the state’s offshore and inshore artificial reef program. “By putting in artificial structural materials, it really gives the fish a chance to have shelter.”

As an offshoot, the thriving marine life attracts local fishermen eager to enjoy the bountiful fisheries.

Where’s the Reef?  

In 1970, local sport fishermen started developing Georgia’s artificial reefs—the success was short lived, however, as the materials they used soon deteriorated. Today, the artificial reefs are managed by the Coastal Resources Division of the Georgia DNR and receive funding from the state, the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration program, and donations from sport fishing clubs, coastal businesses and private contributors.

Georgia has 29 offshore artificial reefs in total—20 are relatively close to shore, eight are far offshore and one is a beach reef. The eight that are far offshore are decommissioned Navy towers, which once served as tactical aircrew training systems. They resemble oil rigs, set high above the water on platforms 40-plus nautical miles offshore, their bases providing an attractive habitat for marine life below.

Named after government officials—or the sponsors who protect the reefs, such as the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA)—the closer-to-shore acronym-named reefs read a bit like alphabet soup. The L, HLHA and CCA reefs host the aforementioned New York subway cars, and the battle tanks can be found at reef JY, KTK and SFC, to name a few.

“Battle tanks are pretty unusual to see!” Murray says. “I’m used to seeing pallet balls or barges or cargo vessels, and those are neat, but a battle tank, that’s something you would never think would be down there.”

Materials of Opportunity 

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In addition to the subway cars and tanks, there are a wide variety of found objects, including World War II ships, concrete pipes, sailboats, landing craft, bridge supports, barges and all sorts of varying rubble. Murray and the DNR refer to this cornucopia as “materials of opportunity.” Indeed, this is exactly what they are. When the opportunity strikes—for instance, when a fishing club wanted to clean up and donate a 39-foot steel-hulled boat, or a bridge is demolished and there is rubble available—Murray jumps at the opportunity and scopes out the materials for the reefs.

Commonly found on the reefs are pallet balls (also known as reef balls), concrete domes with flat bases and holes, providing surface for encrusting organisms to occupy and space for fish to find shelter. Pallet balls are designed specifically to aid in the creation of artificial reefs. In 2012, 274 pallet balls were delivered to the DRH reef site, just 20 nautical miles offshore and south of the natural Gray’s Reef.

Upcycling Underwater

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Upycyling, the process of repurposing and recycling objects into better quality items or those that are better for the environment, is a bit of a trend these days, and underwater upcycling is exactly what is taking place off of Georgia’s coast.

It’s Murray’s job to help find the objects that enhance the reefs. Since joining the program only a year ago, she has been at the helm of four “deployments” of materials to the artificial reefs. She is quick to stress that what her program does is deploying, and not dumping, materials. Not just anything can make the list to become a host for reef life.

“What we’re doing is not considered ocean dumping; the materials are rigorously vetted by state and federal government and reef enhancement programs,” Murray explains of the controversial practice. “You’re not able to just donate your car, kitchen sink or any random materials.”

Murray’s dream deployment would be, “something like a big battleship, a large vessel that could be sunk farther offshore.” But a more pressing item on her wish list is to locate a decommissioned barge that could be loaded with material, and sink it because the habitat with higher relief (sides) is more beneficial than a lower relief for the wildlife. 

Fisherman’s Delight 

8M7A9009The relief, or height, of the artificial reef can make a huge impact on the life that is attracted there. Low-relief reef materials, such as pallet balls and chicken coops, will attract smaller fish, whereas cargo ships will have jacks and larger fish.

Developing a long-term fishing habitat was an initial goal of the DNR’s artificial reef program, and it has been achieved, as reported by conservation groups and fisherman alike.

Mike Kennedy, Yacht Club manager at Sea Island, confirms this notion. “It’s not unusual for a person to catch 100 fish,” he says. “A lot of fish are migratory, but a few are residents, and that’s what’s such a neat asset, when water cools off and the migratory fish leave, we still have resident fish here year-round—and we can always exceed the guests’ expectations.” This fulfills the second goal of the artificial reef program: to create additional accessible recreational fishing opportunities in the state.

“Sea bass would primarily be a target for those fishing,” Kennedy says. “[It] has the most volume—also cobia, mackerel, and we will see barracuda, the occasional sailfish, summer trout, bull redfish and more.”

Kennedy says it is quite interesting fishing the reefs and knowing the history of what you’re hovering above. “One reef, F reef, it’s [the old Lanier] bridge, and you’re right offshore from the new bridge,” he says.

Sport fish clubs along the coast make good use of the reefs and many donate to the reef program, taking a portion of the money earned from fishing tournaments and donating it to the DNR.

Murray would like to clarify that the reefs are designed as an “essential fish habitat” by South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and National Marine Fisheries Service. There are species and season closures to keep in mind. She also points out, “The 28 reefs beyond 3 miles offshore are designated as federal Special Management Zones and as such only allow hand-held, hook-and-line and spearfishing gear.”

The Sea Island Reef Experience

Guests on fishing charters from Sea Island can ask the boats to keep their best catch, which will then be filleted on the dock and cooked up for them in the restaurant of their choice that night. This interactive experience sets the fishing apart from so many other charters.

“Two [sites] we hit most are ALT and F reef. Those are near-shore reefs, as we call them,” Kennedy says of the charters. “Farther out [offshore], you get into grouper complexes, grouper, snapper, African pompano and more, but we don’t run that many trips that far because it’s a six- to eight-hour trip.”

Kennedy enjoys bringing people of various skill levels out on the water to enjoy the growing artificial reefs and their diverse inhabitants in person. “You’re able to encounter so many different species in one location. We’ll see sunfish, loggerhead sea turtles, dolphins … there’s just a lot going on in the middle of the ocean.

“The ability to see, catch and harvest fish—it’s pretty much guaranteed that you will bring something home to eat—it’s a neat experience,” Kennedy explains. “And the ride out is great. Especially on the north reefs and beaches that have no homes on an 8-mile stretch—people can really get idea of how unique the entire area is.”

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