Shipwrecks serve as artificial reefs | Opinion

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A brochure printed by the Palm Beach County Board of County Commissioners states that “a 2001 study revealed that artificial reef-related expenditures during a 12-month period from June 2000 to May 2001 were $151 million providing an estimated 1800 jobs.”

The politics of life in the United States today is about unemployment and economics. Government is always trying to equate spending with improvements in those sectors. Whether the economic impact study is true or false, the fact that artificial reefs can enhance an ecosystem without detracting from natural systems is accepted as fact.

Long ago, I wrote an article about the use of concrete rubble and shipwrecks to establish artificial reefs. I sent it to a world-famous publication of an environmental organization. The editorial response was: “We do not approve dumping into the ocean.” My article was published elsewhere. It described shipwrecks and concrete as habitats. At that time, unwanted automobile tires were also being used to create artificial reefs. These tires have caused more problems than their original value as habitats and are no longer used in reef programs.

In nature, anything can be a safe haven and home. I frequently dive in the vicinity of the Blue Heron Bridge. The large span connects Riviera Beach to Singer Island. A lagoon formed in the area is home to many juvenile species. It is a veritable hatchery for life that eventually migrates through the wide Palm Beach Inlet into the Atlantic Ocean. Many derelict boats provide homes to itinerants that cannot, by law, be moved or forced to leave. They anchor in navigable waters. Their anchor chains, lines and even their garbage provides a home for all manner of sea life.

John Christopher Fine

John Christopher Fine (John Christopher Fine/Courtesy)

While some of the derelicts have been moved away from the area and concrete structures set in place to enhance the attraction for marine life, some marine critters seem to have preferred the litter and junk. The new concrete piles were set in sand and are sinking into the bottom.

Old cans, bottles, shopping carts, ropes, anchors and chains are grown over with sponges and soft corals. Juvenile fish shelter there, sea horses and frog fish inhabit discarded lines. Pilings under the bridge provide home to myriad fish and shell fish. A hurricane sank several small boats near the bridge. There is a sailboat under the east span, two small runabouts and a barge add to the debris. They are festooned with colorful sponges, soft corals and hydroids. Fish abound taking advantage of niches in the shipwrecks.

Every dive at Blue Heron Bridge brings a new understanding of natural systems and animal behavior. Rare and beautiful creatures shelter and reproduce on junk underwater.

Some detractors of artificial reefs decry the fact that these shipwrecks or rubble piles do not add to the gross amount of reef life, rather draw life away from established reefs. Of course there are finite resources in nature, limits to any natural system. However, in the marine environment, finding a home is tantamount to survival. Survival means reproduction. Creating habitats is a good thing. The more habitats the more fish. The argument that a shipwreck sunk as an artificial reef simply draws life away from another established reef structure is not accurate.

A shipwreck in a valley of sand, carefully sited by the Palm Beach County artificial reef program, provides good diving for recreation and acts as a fish haven and substrate for marine growth.

A shipwreck in a valley of sand, carefully sited by the Palm Beach County artificial reef program, provides good diving for recreation and acts as a fish haven and substrate for marine growth. (John Christopher Fine / Contributor)

The structure, so long as it is relatively permanent in nature, is a substrate. Coral larvae and other attaching organisms have a place to create a home. Ships selected for artificial reef projects must be carefully cleaned and prepared to pass environmental inspections so no detrimental matter enters the ocean when they are sunk. This is not the case with accidental singings where fuel and cargoes pollute the oceans over many years.

As scuba diving has become popular, many shipwrecks have been placed in relatively shallow water to make exploration possible. Fish havens for anglers are placed in deeper water. Recreational pursuits draw tourist dollars. Economic impact or not, shipwrecks underwater in tropical environments become living reefs.

In Palm Beach County alone, 45 ships have been sunk in their artificial reef program. The largest is the 340-foot car ferry Princess Anne sunk in 96 feet of water off Lake Park in 1993. One of Mel Fisher’s steel hulled treasure hunting ships, the 70-foot Swordfish, was put down off the town of Gulf Stream in about 90 feet of water.

Capt. Jim Hill, owner of the dive vessel Loggerhead out of the Boynton Harbor Marina takes divers to several shipwrecks that were put down as part of the Palm Beach County program, many sponsored by generous donations by concerned groups and corporations.

Hurricanes have broken up the Swordfish, but its steel mailboxes, used to cover the propeller and enable sand to be blown off treasure sites, are still prominent as are parts of the hull. The Swordfish is located south of another popular shipwreck, the Budweiser.

Shipwrecks used in artificial reef programs often are given names to honor donors that have sponsored them. It is a costly process to clean a ship before sinking. Ships are usually donated by entities like the U.S. Customs Service that have seized them when contraband is found aboard. The preparation, site selection, towing and sinking all requires funding.

Two freighters, the Budweiser Bar and Beck’s, were sunk with grants from the beer distributor. Another large steel hulled ship sunk in the vicinity of Boynton Beach, the Castor, is a 258-foot freighter.

The three shipwrecks located off the Boynton Beach area are home to goliath groupers. These large fish are protected since they were hunted to the verge of extinction. Line fishermen that cast over these shipwrecks and hook a goliath grouper are required to release it unharmed. Many swim below with hooks in their mouths, training monofilament and wire leaders. Divers are sometimes able to cut the leaders to short lengths so they don’t snag the fish. Hooks eventually rust out. The shipwrecks provide them home and shelter and support their predation on other species.

Palm Beach County’s artificial reef program used concrete rubble and blocks to create hydrostructures in the ocean.

Palm Beach County’s artificial reef program used concrete rubble and blocks to create hydrostructures in the ocean. (John Christopher Fine / Contributor)

Barracuda likewise prowl the shipwrecks. Since the Gulf Stream meanders in close to shore, a prevailing northward flowing current causes barracuda to swim facing south in schools.

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Hurricanes have caused even the largest of these artificial reef shipwrecks to break up. The Castor is ripped apart amidships with twisted steel splayed out into the sand. It is still an awesome dive site. Even the wreck’s twisted steel is a housing complex for reef life.

Artificial reef sites are chosen carefully. They are located only after studies are made to determine the best place to site them. Pre-deployment surveys include environmental impact considerations for existing coral reefs.

In South Florida, the Atlantic Ocean reef structure, north of The Keys, runs from Miami to Jupiter. The offshore reefs are located about a mile offshore. The reefs can be clearly defined or patch reefs. Some of the best-defined ledges occur off Palm Beach County. In choosing a site to sink ships as artificial reefs, officials seek out sandy areas away from these established coral reefs.

Shipwrecks can remain virtually intact for upward of 50 years and more. Eventually superstructures will collapse, storms and hurricanes will batter hulls and topple cargo holds. I’ve explored shipwrecks that have been down hundreds of years. They still provide home to corals and reef life.

John Christopher Fine is an author and marine biologist who lives in Boynton Beach.

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