After months of unforgiving weather, recent calm seas finally allowed the addition of a new structure to an artificial reef 30 miles off the coast of Charleston.
"The seas were so calm you hardly realized you were on a boat," said South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) artificial reef coordinator Robert Martore, who watched in early May as the Gen. Oglethorpe, a decommissioned tugboat, was towed out and sunk in 105 feet of water.
The Oglethorpe joined numerous other structures already at Comanche Reef – a retired Coast Guard cutter for which the reef was named, a large tugboat, a steel-hulled shrimp trawler, and 50 subway cars – all intended to provide fish habitat on a sandy stretch of seafloor.
Artificial reefs play a similar role in the ocean as coral reefs, which cannot grow in the temperate waters off the coast of South Carolina. These human-built structures are typically placed on areas of seafloor with little natural relief, improving habitat and spawning grounds for a diverse array of fish and marine life – and in turn attracting recreational divers and anglers.
The SCDNR has been constructing artificial reefs to improve offshore fish populations and fishing opportunities for over forty years, sinking everything from bridge spans to military vehicles to subway cars. The environmental benefits of artificial reefs are twofold, as they recycle materials that would otherwise be destined for landfills in addition to expanding critical habitat for offshore fish. Structures intended for artificial reefs undergo a long and rigorous cleaning process to ensure they’re safe to sink.
"A tug of this size really makes a great reef structure," Martore said. "The complexity of the vessel provides habitat for a wide variety of species – everything from small baitfish that will school above it to larger snapper and grouper that will eventually take up residence here. This will be a great destination for anglers and divers."
The 106-foot Gen. Oglethorpe marks the first of three deepwater new artificial reef structures funded in part by the Coastal Conservation Association of South Carolina (CCA SC) to improve habitat for snapper and grouper species.
"It is an exciting time in marine conservation,” said Scott Whitaker, executive director of CCA SC. “The collaborative effort of this partnership has been highly successful for nearly a decade and the scope and breadth of the project list continues to expand, enhancing both South Carolina’s envied coastal & marine resources and the recreational angling community’s access to abundant, sustainable fisheries. CCA SC is committed to our motto of habitat today equals fish tomorrow, and we look forward to many more of these projects.”
South Carolina is home to dozens of artificial reef sites, the location data for which are free to download to your marine GPS device.