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Artificial Reefs Made With Sunken Subway Cars, Navy Ships

John Roach
for National Geographic News
August 18, 2006
 
Along the Atlantic coast from New Jersey to Georgia, thousands of fish
are crammed into subway cars—but they're going nowhere fast, and
recreational fishers couldn't be happier.

The subway cars, along with armored tanks, naval ships, tugboats, and a large amount of concrete culverts, were strategically dumped in the ocean to serve as artificial reefs.

"In the mid-Atlantic region, we have very, very little exposed rock," said Jeff Tinsman, the artificial reef coordinator for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources in Dover (map of Delaware).

Hard surfaces—whether natural or human-made—are attractive to oysters, blue mussels, and food sources vital to local fish populations, including black sea bass.

But most of the ocean surface along the mid-Atlantic is featureless sand interspersed with mud splotches, so the artificial reefs are beacons for marine life.

"Oftentimes [artificial reefs] are hundreds of times richer in terms of biomass than the natural community at the bottom," Tinsman said. "This is very attractive to fish."

(Related story: "Noisy Reefs Preferred by Young Fish, Study Says" [April 7, 2005].)

State agencies turned to artificial reefs for help after they were pressed to boost local fish populations because of numerous razed oyster beds, Tinsman explains.

Divers to the artificial estuarine reefs often report seeing hundreds of juvenile black sea bass, an economically important fish, he adds.

Jennifer Samson, a marine scientist with Clean Ocean Action, a New Jersey-based advocacy organization, supports the Atlantic reef programs.

She says New Jersey's artificial reef program is "excellent" and "well supported by the fishing community" (map of New Jersey.)

Subway Shelter

When New York City transit officials looked to recycle more than a thousand Redbird subway cars in 2001, the artificial reef programs seemed like an ideal home, Tinsman explained today in a broadcast of the Pulse of the Planet radio program.

(This news story and Pulse of the Planet are sponsored in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation.)

Before the rail cars were sunk, materials that were potentially dangerous, such as the oily and greasy undercarriages, were removed; doors and windows were taken off; and the interiors were steam cleaned.

What remained were 20,000-pound (9,000-kilogram) boxes with good water circulation and lots of nooks and crannies for fish, Tinsman says. The dismantled cars were dumped from barges, where they sank to the ocean floor.

Between 2002 and 2003, a total of 1,269 of the cars were reefed in five states: New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia.

"[Delaware] received more than any other—we received 619," Tinsman said.

But some environmental groups, including Clean Ocean Action, express concern that asbestos in the subway cars could be harmful to fish.

But Tinsman says the issue was addressed "satisfactorily" prior to deployment.

"This is non-friable asbestos, which means it's not in a dangerous form—[there are] no loose asbestos fibers, but [rather] a small amount of asbestos bound up in an epoxy matrix," he said.

Underwater, Tinsman adds, there is "no way" for the asbestos particles to rapidly release and pollute surrounding waters. And even if they did release, the asbestos "would stay bound up in that solid."

Samson, the marine scientist, says the asbestos issue was properly handled and state agencies are monitoring the cars to make sure they remain safe.

"We're comfortable with 99.5 percent of the material out there," she said. "The vast majority of it is long-lasting, durable materials such as rock and concrete."

Michael Zacchea oversees the recycling of subway cars for New York City Transit. He said using the cars for reefs "was more successful than we even considered it would be. It was a great program all around."

The agency is currently considering whether to reef an additional 2,600 cars over the next ten years, starting in 2007. A final decision is expected with a few months, Zacchea says.

Fishing Spots

Each year, state fish and wildlife agencies in the mid-Atlantic region release guides for the artificial reefs, which anglers use to scout out the best fishing spots.

"Artificial reefs are very popular with fishermen; they know they do provide a high concentration of fish available for harvest," Tinsman said.

The state agencies manage reef fish populations the same way they do any other fishery, setting limits on the size and number of fish that can be caught.

The artificial reef building program is still ongoing, Tinsman adds. Within most designated artificial reef sites, only a small fraction of the seafloor has been developed.

"We will go on with this activity for the foreseeable future, I think. It is a benefit to fish populations and very popular with fishermen," he said.

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