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Delaware's artificial reef program


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Delaware has 14 permitted artificial reef sites in Delaware Bay and along the Atlantic Coast. Development of these sites began in 1995 and has aggressively continued into the present with new reef structure added as quickly as the artificial reef program can get its collective claws around suitable material. This includes anything old and afloat that will sink after it's been cleaned up environmentally for reefing, and anything cleanly discarded that can be resurrected as reef material once it goes down to the ocean floor. In short, the Delaware Reef Program is one part of a comprehensive fisheries management effort and is designed to enhance fisheries habitat, benefit structure-oriented fish and provide fishing opportunities for anglers. Over the long haul, artificial reefs are seen as a salvation for depleted or endangered fisheries.
The tugboat Margaret just before sinking in 2006. Photo by Gary Cooke

Artificial reef construction is especially important in the Mid-Atlantic region, where near shore bottom is usually featureless sand or mud. We have neither the natural rocky outcrops common in New England or the coral reefs of our Southeastern Atlantic Coast.

Durable, stable, non-toxic reef materials can develop an invertebrate community which is hundreds of times richer than adjacent bottom, providing food and physical protection for reef fish such as tautog, seabass, scup, spadefish and triggerfish. In addition, gamefish such as bluefish, striped bass and weakfish are attracted to baitfish, which congregate around reef structure.

Recycled materials have supported reef development efforts to date. Donated concrete culvert pipe and other concrete products are the primary material used at the eight Delaware Bay sites. Ballasted tire units have been deployed at the three ocean sites. The tugboat “Golden Eagle” has been sunk in the lower bay and the tug "Margaret" (photo above and, just before its sinking, below) was the latest vessel of her kind to join the artificial reef when sunk in 2006.

Through the year 2000, 24,500 tons of concrete products, 8,000 tons of ballasted tire units and 86 decommissioned military vehicles had been deployed on Delaware sites. During 1999 two small vessels (“P3” and “Dolphin”) were deployed on site number seven and the commercial tug “Delilah” was sunk on site number 11.The tug Margaret takes on water sinking in 2006. Photo by Gary Cooke.

Subsequently, hundreds of New York City subway cars have bolstered and expanded Delaware's artificial reefs, namely the renowned Redbird Reef.

The Redbird Reef site, begun in 1996, takes its name from the "Redbird" paint-schemed subway cars donated in 2001 by New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority. To build the Redbird Reef, 619 of the obsolete subway cars were sunk, each of them 51 feet long by nine wide, making a substantial bottom structure for an artificial reef.

They went to the bottom of the ocean just in time, too – for, as a recent article in The New York Times pointed out, Delaware got that bounty of subway cars after other states rejected their use as as artificial reef material. Now, with Delaware's success in establishing "luxury condominiums for fish," according to reef program manager Jeff Tinsman, other states are tenaciously competing for the old cars. For example, New Jersey, which was among the opponents of placing them on the ocean floor, now has requested 600 subway cars from New York City.

But, as the Times' article pointed out, even while in line for more subway cars that may or may not make the trip to Delaware's Davey Jones' locker, the state continues to build on its reef program with other non-toxic materials and objects for reef structure. These include decommissioned ships of many kinds and Delaware will continue making use of whatever is safe for ocean placement that has proved to enhance aquatic and marine life. 

The reef program uses DGPS (Differential Global Positioning System) to accurately place materials on site. The site charts in the reef guide show where reef materials have been deployed from 1995 - 1999. Locations (latitude - longitude) noted for each site indicate the position of deployments of reef material from an anchored barge. In the case of large, concentrated reef deployments, a latitude or longitude range, may be given such as: N 39? 15.377’-402’. This indicates material occurs between 39 degrees, 15.377 to 15.402 minutes north latitude. Due to variability between DGPS receivers, slight variations in readings may occur. It is suggested you use your GPS and a good fathometer to locate reef structure, then note the coordinates on your own GPS.

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