S.C. Memorial Reef working as hoped

The first barge goes down on the S.C. Memorial Reef in 2014. Photo by Bob Martore, S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

A lot of overfished grouper species have decided to call the South Carolina Memorial Reef home, which is exactly what was hoped for by fisheries scientists and the anglers who combined to make the dream a reality two summers ago.

Bob Martore, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ artificial reef coordinator, said last month that NOAA had the vessel Pisces out surveying the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Marine Protected Areas and sent a remotely operated underwater vehicle down to video what was happening some 300 feet below the surface on the S.C. Memorial Reef.

“It was designed to be a spawning area for those overfished grouper species and that’s exactly what it was doing,” Martore said. “They reported seeing scamp, red snapper, yellowedge grouper, snowy grouper, Warsaw grouper, misty grouper…That’s a fish that’s really been declining. These fish are large fish, spawning size. We had hoped they would utilize it as a spawning site and it really appears that they are. All these fish were targeted for protection and they are showing up and using these areas.”

The S.C. Memorial Reef is part of the Charleston Deep Reef project, an area 4 miles by 6 miles located about 52 miles off Charleston. The area was permitted in 2005 when DNR thought it would be getting a lot of the superstructure when the old bridges crossing the Cooper River were taken down, but it later was decided to sell the steel for scrap.

In 2008, a group of offshore anglers contacted Martore with the idea of a deepwater reef that could honor fishing buddies who had died unexpectedly. They began raising funds and eventually reached a goal of $500,000. They bought and scrounged materials such as radio towers and cargo containers that were welded to two large barges, 260 feet long by 52 feet wide. The barges now provide approximately 120 feet of relief from the flat sandy bottom.

There were some issues when the barges were sunk and one landed outside of the permitted zone, but the permit area was adjusted to include both structures. The reef is a Type II Marine Protected Area, which means bottom fishing is prohibited but trolling for pelagic is allowed and anglers have taken sailfish and dolphin from the reef area.

“From the beginning we knew it was going to be somewhat experimental in nature. There’s never been an artificial reef Marine Protected Area,” Martore said. “We wanted to compare this with over natural live bottom areas that were designated Marine Protected Areas.”

While providing a sanctuary for the bottom species, the reef structures also help attract pelagic by creating upwellings that bring baitfish in and other larger species that come to feed on the baitfish.

Martore said DNR would love to add more structure eventually, but depends on coming up with a large enough vessel or raising enough money to build structures such as those already in place.