Barges sunk to form the new S.C. Memorial Reef appear to have come to rest outside of their permitted zone 60 miles southeast of Charleston, raising questions about what types of fishing will be allowed around the reef structures.
Two 260-foot barges with welded-on shipping containers, towers and even a crane were dropped in two separate trips. A mix of private and government forces deployed the reef materials in May and June. The effort followed years of private fundraising by a grassroots group of local offshore anglers.
The barges were bound for a 26-square-mile, rectangular Marine Protected Area, nearly 6 miles long and more than 3 miles wide in 300-500 feet of water. Trolling for blue-water game fish is allowed inside this federally managed MPA, but bottom-fishing for grouper and snapper is not.
The barges' exact locations won't affect their intended use as a trolling destination, only whether anglers can target snapper, grouper and other species at the sites.
Throughout its long planning and fundraising stages, the reef had been touted as a future haven for bottom fish, a potential "fish factory" where heavily pressured grouper and snapper species could flourish, breed and supply fresh stocks for areas outside the MPA. Such a reef also would attract highly sought-after trolling targets, such as blue marlin, tuna, wahoo and dolphin.
Based on coordinates supplied this week by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the first barge appears to have landed on the seafloor about a quarter-mile outside the MPA's inshore boundary. The second barge appears to have come to rest more than 2 miles outside the inshore boundary.
The South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council confirmed that these initial coordinates (32 07.415 N 079 09.135 W for Barge 1 and 32 05.400 N 079 13.700 W for Barge 2) are outside the MPA boundaries.
A DNR official involved in the Memorial Reef project said shifting ocean conditions, slower-then-expected sinking and safety concerns were factors in at least one barge missing its intended target inside the MPA.
"Barge 2 was anchored well inside the permitted area when the valves were opened and sinking began," Bob Martore wrote in an email this week. "For some reason that we really don't know, the vessel simply wouldn't sink. It floated in place for hours while the seas became rougher as time went on. As the seas increased the barge slowly started drifting away."
Martore said the tugboat captain didn't think it would be safe to put someone back on the barge in rough seas to tie back up to the tug.
"After five hours of slowly sinking and drifting, this is where the barge ended up," he said.
Martore said Barge No. 1, which was deployed a few weeks before Barge 2, appeared to drop "right on the line."
Mel Bell, head of the DNR's fisheries management program, advised anglers against bottom fishing on either barge, saying reported locations needed to be verified before a determination on bottom-fishing rules could be made. Since the MPA boundary is not marked by buoys or other means, bottom-fishing anglers toeing the line could run into trouble if they drift across.
But Bell did encourage sportfishermen and women to take advantage of the reef as the hot new offshore trolling destination it was intended to be. The barges appear to sit about 5 miles apart, giving big-game fishermen a unique opportunity to set up figure-eight trolling patterns around the deep-water structures.
"NOAA's survey vessel RV Pisces is scheduled to be in our offshore waters later this month and is planning on completing a detailed and very accurate survey of the area and the two barges themselves," Bell said in an email this week. "This work will also include inspection of the barges through the use of an ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle)."
Inspection with a submersible vehicle and side-scanning sonar work will not only establish the official location of the new reef and clarify bottom-fishing regulations but also reveal how the barges landed on the seafloor. Ideally, the vessels would have touched down on their keels, with the welded-on crane, towers and shipping containers rising toward the surface.
A clear picture of the new reefs will give scientists a "baseline underwater picture of what the reef looks like now," Bell said. "We hope to repeat this work in the future to track the development of the living reef community that will be established on this site."
If scientists verify that one or both of the barges landed outside the MPA, state and federal officials could begin a lengthy process to extend the boundaries and underlying permit area to include the structures.
It's also possible that additional structures may be added to the permitted reef area inside the MPA, creating the potential for comparative studies of artificial reef development inside and outside protected areas.
Matt Winter, manager of Niche Content and Design, is editor of Tideline magazine.
The first barge of the S.C. Memorial Reef is sunk in May. The barges, made in part from shipping containers, have landed on the seafloor about a quarter-mile outside the MPA’s inshore boundary, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.×