Reefs’ future on the rocks

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The waters off Montauk are blessed at this time of year with a hodgepodge of natural subterranean features that attract and hold wintertime fish species like blackfish, sea bass and cod.

But back to the west the vast sand lenses that keep Long Island’s beaches healthy make for a barren offshore desert, devoid of the sort of cragged hard structure these bottom species love. Enter artificial reefs.

Since the 1970s and up until 2004, New York State regularly acquired large metal objects—old fishing boats, barges, warships, surplus military vehicles, sections of old bridges—and lots of big rocks, and dumped them into the ocean two to three miles off Shinnecock and Moriches.

Barnacles, corals, sponges and sea grasses quickly colonized the rusting metal. Swarms of baitfish, bergalls, blackfish, porgies and sea bass were quick to follow and have provided fishermen with some great bottom fishing in the fall and winter over the years.

But with one of the best opportunities ever to expand productive artificial reefs, New York State may be balking at continuing its reef program.

New York City is overhauling its subway fleet and is disposing of thousands of the old subway cars. The stainless steel cars are 80 feet long each. 
Fishermen have called them fish motels.

Delaware and New Jersey have already jumped at the opportunity to build giant artificial reefs off their coasts and have been dumping hundreds of the subway cars into the water off their shores the last three years. The largest of the reefs, called the Red Bird Reef after the subway car model, has been a huge success (though it has sparked some heated clashes among commercial and recreational fishermen competing for limited fishing space).

Thus far, however, New York has gotten none of the cars because it has been redrafting its federal artificial reef permit. That process was supposedly completed last fall and fishermen around Shinnecock and Moriches had been led to believe that there would be barge-loads of subway cars heading for our waters by next summer.

But state environmental officials still aren’t sure they are going to forge ahead with an aggressive reef program using the subway cars. The city had planned to stop giving the cars to other states in 2009 because they expected all the leftover cars to be going to New York State waters. Now, the cars may end up headed south after all.

The benefits of artificial reefs to fishing communities are many and readily apparent. The problems they present are much less obvious but may be just as numerous.

Asbestos in the old subway cars has raised environmental concerns, though officials in the states that have been accepting them have determined the carcinogenic fibers are not a threat underwater. There are other doubts about what the decaying cars, which are anticipated to last about 30 years underwater, may leave behind when they have rusted away.

But the biggest concern may be that the reefs do what they are designed to do—attract fish—too well, which could lead to over-fishing.

Critics say artificial reefs consolidate colonies of fish that would otherwise be widespread and make them more vulnerable to targeted harvesting.

Reef proponents say the artificial habitat promotes breeding and helps fish populations expand. Studies of this principle have shown it to be true, when lack of habitat is a problem for fish stocks, which may not be the case in these parts.

New York is one step ahead of Delaware in its over-fishing prevention, having banned the use of fish traps in the vicinity of artificial reefs. The state should get off its butt and grab those subway cars while it can. Take advantage of tight new regulations for blackfish and sea bass that are sure to spark population growth. Smaller bag limits should just mean that more boats can get out and enjoy the good fishing a new artificial reef would bring to our area come next fall.

Hopefully, I’ll see you out there.

Venison Festival

Don’t forget the Venison Festival at the Southampton Elks Lodge this weekend, Saturday 3 to 6 p.m. and Sunday 1 to 6 p.m. The food is free, but donations are appreciated.

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