A 65-foot trawler is the latest large vessel added to South Carolina’s fleet of artificial reefs.
The decommissioned shrimp boat was deployed off Georgetown in October and is helping to create more fish habitat along the coast and provide another destination for anglers and divers.
The state Department of Natural Resources said the vessel joins a large barge and 20 Army vehicles already at the site. This new addition was led and funded by the state Coastal Conservation Association and the Sea Hunt Boat Co.
The association is comprised of recreational saltwater anglers who Director Scott Whitaker said were some of the country’s first conservationists.
“They recognize just how important it is to be mindful of not only ... wise stewardship of resources, but giving back and creating that habitat when we can,” he said.
He said recreational fishermen of all ages and backgrounds are more prepared than ever to support measures that will conserve their resources.
“Last year, I think, had a reawakening to the general public of just how important our natural resources are,” Whitaker said.
He said he believes the lockdowns and social distancing recommendations brought marine and natural resources back to the forefront as more people participated in activities like fishing, boating and hiking.
Making people aware of marine resources is an important step in enhancing them, Whitaker said.
The association has deployed 15 reefs in the state and wants to have more reef-creating structures on each site by 2030.
Robert Martore leads the artificial reef program for the DNR. He said the agency generally adds at least two or three big trawlers every year to the reef system. About five additional vessels are at a shipyard right now undergoing preparations to be sunk and ultimately provide more deep-sea habitats.
Biologists have also constructed and sunk new concrete designs at the popular Charleston 60 Reef site. They used octagonal structures intended to control erosion to create eight towers that are providing more habitats on the seafloor. The towers are of different heights and configurations, DNR said.
These creations haven’t been used specifically for fish habitats before.
“We will monitor the structures, and if they attract and hold significant numbers of fishes, we will construct more and distribute them along the coast,” Martore said in a news release.
Tom Robinson, owner of Charleston Scuba, said the Charleston 60 Reef site is one of the closest diveable sites in the area. It is about 12 miles off the end of the jetties. His company uses reef sites like these when assisting with research on groundwater and coral reef ecology.
Robinson has seen firsthand the need for these new habitats. He said part of the problem is that South Carolina is a shallow coastal plain.
He's noticed some underwater ledges in the Charleston area have overhangs that fish tend to like.
“But there’s very little structure out there for fish to aggregate on, and they need shelter,” he said. “So, artificial reefs provide that. And fish start to aggregate on those reefs and stuff starts to grow on the metal, iron and steel.”
Robinson said these reefs do provide a lot of habitats, but also a lot of opportunities for fishermen and women.
There are 48 reef sites in the state. A wide range of items have been used for artificial reef ecosystems, including Army tanks and the old S.C. Highway 41 bridge that once crossed the Wando River.
Martore said people are most interested in hearing about the New York City subway cars that are now at the bottom of the ocean off South Carolina.
Plans to add the historic Clamagore submarine to the state’s reef system were supposed to get underway last year, but were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The submarine is housed at the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant. Funds to sink the Cold War sub have since been redirected.
When the last study was completed 12 years ago, it was estimated that the reef program had an economic impact of about $83 million annually. The number of anglers using the reef sites has increased since that time, so Martore said he thinks the economic impact has increased, too.