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August 18, 2008

Virginia's artificial reefs growing

The program plans to fill up existing reef sites with material before exploring new areas.

The slogan for Virginia's Artificial Reef Program is, "If you build it, they will come." So far the program has built 23 reefs from the Chesapeake Bay to the Atlantic Ocean and the fish have come in droves.  The program's latest effort dumped 46 retired New York City subway cars 5.8 miles off of Assateague Island on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

According to the program's director, Mike Meier, anglers are already catching fish at the reef.  "Species that are attracted to structure will find the reef quickly," he says, "and we should have the first invertebrate critters clinging to the cars in about a year."

The 50-year-old subway cars are provided by the New York City Mass Transit Authority as a cheaper alternative to other methods of disposal.  In fact, the first load of subway cars were delivered for free. 

Meier says that the State expects to receive 5 more shipments of cars this year with one more load scheduled for the Blackfish Bank, 2 loads to be placed off Wachapreague, and 2 loads will be dumped at the Chesapeake Light Tower off Virginia Beach.  These deliveries will be funded by money collected through the sales of saltwater fishing licenses. 

In the late 1970s, the State took over several of the reefs from private groups that had secured permits and materials for artificial reefs in the 1950s.  "We owe a lot to the work of the Tidewater Artificial Reef Association of Virginia and the Sea Side Sportfishing Improvement Association on the Eastern Shore," Meier says.  He explains that these groups established reefs off Wachapreague and at the Tower Reef site off Virginia Beach.  Since then, the program has taken off and 23 sites have been established using materials from old tires to scrap concrete pipe to decommissioned ships to surplus military equipment.  Before any of the material is placed at a permitted reef site, it is cleaned and prepared for its new life underwater. 

When we spoke to Meier, he was working to secure 4000 tons of concrete piping to add to artificial reef sites in Chesapeake Bay.  He says that the program plans to fill up existing reef sites with material before exploring new areas.  "We have a lot of permitted areas left to fill," he explains. 

Meier also looks to spend more time monitoring these sites for stability and sustainability while tracking the biological growth and life at the sites, too.  "What you see on the surface of these sights is an obvious habitat for fish," he says, "but these reefs provide increased opportunities for fishermen and put a lot of dinners on a lot of tables."   

Find maps of these sites and check out side-scan sonar images of the reefs at http://www.mrc.virginia.gov/vsrfdf/reef.shtm.