A tribute under the sea

This barge, sunk Sunday 50 miles off the coast, will form an artificial reef and serve as a memorial (above) to offshore fisherman.

There was a mixture of happiness tinged with sadness Sunday morning as a small group of boaters gathered 52 miles off the coast of Charleston to watch the first piece of structure that will form the South Carolina Memorial Reef slip beneath the waves.

Years of dreams, hard work and tears followed by months of waiting for an appropriate weather window have now become a reality. The flooding valves were opened and the 260-foot-long with a towering structure welded to its deck gently settled stern-first to the bottom 350 feet below. A similar barge, still under construction at Stevens Towing on Yonges Island, will be deployed in the next few months and complete the project.

"It's very exciting for this day to finally get here. It seems like we've been waiting forever for the weather to cooperate," said Steve Leasure, who was part of a core group of a dozen hard-working fishing enthusiasts who helped make the vision come true.

The idea for the South Carolina Memorial Reef (located at 32.07.440N, 79.07.523W, scmemorialreef.com) began in 2008, shortly after Tony Smoak, captain of the Fish Wrapper, died unexpectedly at the age of 43. A few months later Robbie Johnson of the Sea Fix succumbed to cancer at the age of 49.

Wanting to remember their friends, the group began discussions with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources about building a deepwater reef, and then began fund-raising efforts last year reaching the goal of $500,000.

"Because this is such a unique type of reef we're putting out, everybody is anxious to see how it works out," said Bob Martore, who coordinates the SCDNR artificial reef program. The S.C. Memorial Reef is part of the greater Charleston Deep Reef site which covers a four- by six-mile section of ocean.

Construction is one thing that makes the reef unique. Committee members scrounged a variety of materials that are expected to offer a profile of nearly 120 feet on a sandy, featureless ocean bottom.

The platforms are long barges that are 52 feet wide and 20 to 25 feet tall. But the barges alone wouldn't offer a lot of vertical relief so other donated materials were added. A number of 40-foot steel truck chassis have been welded together in teepee fashion. Steel trucking containers have been stacked pyramid fashion. An old cell tower and a crane have been welded to the barge deck. Several large steel crosses constructed of I-beams have been added and 28 smaller crosses remembering individual fishermen also have been affixed to the barge.

Government and stage agencies are watching with interest because the S.C. Memorial Reef is the first artificial reef that is part of a Marine Protected Area. Martore said it is a Type II MPA which will allow trolling for pelagic species like billfish, tuna, dolphin and wahoo but bottom fishing for species such as snapper and grouper are prohibited.

"This is somewhat experimental, to see if an artificial reef can serve as an MPA," Martore said. "We are trying to take that area and build something that will become habitat. You've accomplished the goal of creating protected habitat for fish but at the same time you haven't taken anything away from the fishermen."

Based on previous reef structures, Martore said fish will colonize the structure quickly, moving from areas that are more crowded. A trip to do camera and sonar studies has been booked for June, he said, and he expects full-time residents within three to six months.

"We are looking forward to the memorial side of it, remembering our friends," Leasure said. "We're looking forward to fishing (the reef) and making the coast a better place to fish."