ZACK HOOPES ¦ Staff Writer
This water taxi, donated by a Baltimore ferry operator, is now ready to be sunk roughly five miles off the resort’s coast as part of the Ocean City Reef Foundation’s artificial reef-building efforts.PHOTO COURTESY CAPT. MONTY HAWKINS(Nov. 30, 2012) In one of the more unusual returns on recycling efforts, the Ocean City Reef Foundation will soon be taking another big step in its mission to turn scrap metal into fish.
The conversion, however, is less supernatural – don’t think water into wine – and more biological.
For the past several years, the foundation has been strategically sinking bulk scrap at various locations in the sea in order to provide a structural basis for the growth of marine ecosystems. The scrap essentially serves as a manmade reef, providing a solid basis for coral growth as well as shelter for plankton and crustaceans, attachment points for oysters and mussels, and eventually a basis for a food chain that will involve larger fish.
“We’re trying to provide some more complexity out there for the fish,” said Capt. Monty Hawkins. “The more habitat you give them, the better they do.”
Hawkins is the captain of the “Morning Star,” a charter fishing boat based out of West Ocean City. Along with many others in the area’s commercial and charter fishing industry, Hawkins has been a longtime supporter of reef-building efforts, given that artificial reefs have made a noticeable difference in the quality and variety of fish available in coastal waters.
“It’s almost December, but I got 12 guys out on the boat and we had a wonderful day … it was all on artificial reefs,” Hawkins said on returning from the water Monday. “We’re growing coral out there like crazy.”
Hawkins has also just completed work on the foundation’s next reef project – a derelict water taxi, donated by a company that runs a ferry fleet in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Hawkins and his crew have recently finished loading it with additional concrete blocks and rods, further donations from Eastern Shore Brick.
“That’s the third [water taxi] that they’ve donated to us,” said Ocean City Reef Foundation President Greg Hall. If the weather holds up, Hall said he plans to sink the taxi by the end of this week at Russell’s Reef, an artificial construct that lies about five miles off the beach.
“There’s hundreds of things out there – barges, boats, all kinds of structure made of concrete pipes and steel,” Hall said. “It just depends on when stuff is donated to us. When the opportunity arises, we try to get it out there.”
The foundation was formed in 1997, when the State of Maryland ceased its artificial reef-building projects. The permits defining how and where reefs can be built, however, were transferred to the city’s jurisdiction under the direction of Ocean City Environmental Engineer Gail Blazer. Since then, Blazer has coordinated the legal end of the Reef Foundation’s efforts, which are otherwise funded entirely through donations and grants.
The state has since resumed its reef efforts, but they are largely concentrated on bays and inland areas where a push is being made for aquaculture and oyster farming. The construction of open-water reefs is still largely in the hands of private non-profits like the Ocean City Reef Foundation.
Hall has been with the Reef Foundation since its birth. He runs a marine towing and salvage operation in West Ocean City, and state officials would often contract his barge to inspect and build reefs.
“After the state got out of it, it was either do it ourselves or just have the reefs lost,” he said.
The issue with coastal fishing is that many areas have either been over-fished or disturbed by coastal construction, erosion, and sand shifts, leaving what is essentially a desert on the ocean floor. Artificial reef building accelerates regrowth considerably.
“To me, this is habitat restoration,” Hawkins said. “We’re putting back square yards of reef where there used to be square miles.”
Most bulk steel, he said, will take 100 years or more to rust out. By that time, the coral itself will be structurally sound.
“If it doesn’t sand in, [the water taxi structure] will last every bit of 300 years,” Hawkins said. “And even after that substrate has gone, you’ll still have the coral.”
Hawkins estimated that 40 to 50 hours of work went into the water taxi project. Plug holes were welded into the structure, so that the vessel could be gradually sunk once Hall tows it to the right location.
The water taxi reef will be dedicated to Doug Ake, of Ake Marine in West Ocean City, a long-time foundation supporter who is currently battling health issues.