By Catherine Kozak | Outer Banks Voice on January 28, 2020
Calm and clear, the morning of Monday Jan. 27 was a lovely day to sink a boat — and build a reef.
Four years after the Outer Banks Anglers Club set in motion plans for a 162-acre artificial fishing reef off Oregon Inlet, a big old tugboat is the first infrastructure to be submerged in constructing what will be essentially a new neighborhood for fish.
The retired 88-foot tug American, pumped heavy with seawater, listed on its side before the stern pitched under about 70 feet of water — and stopped.
“The bow went straight up,’ Richard Parker, chair of the club’s Oregon Inlet Artificial Reef Committee, recounted. “The stern actually hit the bottom of the ocean.”
For a few long seconds, as he described, the old tug’s bow was sticking out of the water, its nose buried in sand. That’s when he and others did some quick math: the boat was nearly 20 feet longer than the water depth.
“Nobody thought about that,” said a bemused Parker, who was in high spirits after the Crystal Dawn returned to Pirate’s Cove Marina in Manteo. The Voice conducted interviews with members of the club after they had returned to the marina.
Fortunately, the tug righted itself before sinking straight down. Almost as a signal, a big air bubble popped on the surface.
Parker said that he was just relieved that the tug didn’t land upside down, a posture that would not be ideal for attracting fish and could be dangerous to divers. “It couldn’t have gone better,” he said. He added that the club paid Virginia Beach contractor Coleen Marine $98,000 to transport and sink the American.
It was a rewarding day for Parker, a retired Dare County Superior Court judge who has been working on the reef project since 2015. The following year, Parker learned that the group could seek funds for an artificial fishing reef from the state Division of Marine Fisheries recreational fishing license revenue.
In Nov. 2018, the Anglers Club was awarded an $887,000 grant for a two-year project to construct a reef — since pegged AR 165 — south of the Oregon Inlet sea buoy.
Although the club has taken the responsibility of planning, permitting and obtaining funds and donations for the reef, it is owned by Marine Fisheries, Parker said. “As soon as the boat hit the bottom of the ocean,” he said, “it became theirs.”
Artificial reefs protect fish habitat and attract and provide shelter for communities of sea life, so they are viewed as win-win propositions for fish, fishermen and divers. Of the 43 artificial reefs in North Carolina waters, only four are off the northern Outer Banks.
Two more tugs, each also bearing patriotic names, are also slated for recycling on the ocean floor at AR-165, said reef committee co-chair Brian Forbes in an interview.
Next up will be the America, a retired 104-foot-long tug with a 30-foot draft, he said. Coleen Marine will be paid $112,000 to add it to the reef, which is a circle design with a radius of 1,500 feet. Then this spring, the same contractor will sink the Valley Forge, a 110-foot tugboat with a 15-foot draft, for a cost of $115,000.
Forbes said the tugs will be placed within the border of the reef, but will not be close together.
In addition to the sunken vessels, he said, there will be 7,250 tons of concrete, much of it from cylindrical pipes and culverts, transported in two to four barges from Norfolk to the reef site that will be distributed in the reef.
Coleen Marine will be paid $567,500 for the concrete work. Some of the material will be donated by Coastal Precast Systems in Chesapeake and Atlantic Metrocast Inc. in Portsmouth, Parker said.
The reef is scheduled to be completed this summer. But move-in day will be much sooner for the fish. “Probably like tomorrow,” Parker said. “Fish are going to be on the reef quickly. Fish are probably there already.”
Listening nearby, Stew Baldwin, the club’s first president, piped in and agreed wholeheartedly that fish, just like birds and other animals, somehow get the word out.
“You’ll have the fish that hang out at the bottom — sea bass, trigger fish, spade fish, flounder. And black drum and sheep’s head. And the ones that like structures: Spanish mackerel, cobra, false albacore. They’ll probably be plenty of sharks.”
Parker said that artificial reefs create an ecosystem in which some fish can spend their entire lives. “They’re born there, they feed there, they get caught there,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ll get caught by me.”
Although the reef will provide a new home for fish populations, there’s a broader reason that the Anglers Club has worked so hard to get it built.
“The Outer Banks is now known for its world-class offshore fishing,” Parker said. “We’re trying to make it known also for its nearshore fishing with these artificial fishing reefs.”