|Chesapeake notebook: Group wants live-reef
project to flourish|
By John Page Williams, For The Capital
If life hands you lemons, make lemonade." Anglers and charter boat
captains in the middle Bay are taking that maxim seriously. The Gas
Docks just above Cove Point will begin accepting shipments of liquid
natural gas this spring. Dominion Resources Company, the docks'
owner, will close the waters around them to all unrelated vessels,
with the closure supervised by the U.S. Coast Guard.
For nearly 30 years, the Gas Docks have served as an
extraordinary complex of fishing reefs, attracting rockfish, gray
trout, bluefish and flounder. On any given day in season, 30-50
boats gathered there to set chum lines, drop jigs or deploy live
baits around the pilings, whose hard surfaces attracted a broad
variety of Bay creatures, from mussels, barnacles and marine worms
to grass shrimp, blue crabs and small fish.
Two hundred years ago, this kind of "live
bottom" grew on thousands of acres of oyster reefs. As over harvest,
pollution, and disease have destroyed the oysters, the Bay has lost
much of this keystone habitat. Thus, a prominent structure like the
Gas Docks becomes a magnet for Bay creatures in its area.
The docks will continue to function as a haven
for fish, which is fine with a lot of anglers in the area, but they
need alternative sites for their trips, and those sites must also be
clear of target practice areas used by the Patuxent Naval Air
Station. Last year, a group of anglers in the Solomons area came
together to plan a major project for building live reefs from Cove
Point down to Point No Point.
This is a
fascinating section of the Chesapeake. As part of the Bay's
ancestral Susquehanna River channel, it's narrow and deep, with
strong currents, sharp-breaking edges, underwater shelves and
shallow flats on the sides. It's also the main highway along which
every fish and crab traveling between the upper and lower Bay must
move. We can only speculate about how rich it must have been when
oyster reefs lined those edges, shelves and flats.
The leaders in the reef project are
far-sighted enough to understand that fish stocks will flourish in
the area only if the reefs are properly built, so they supply the
ecosystem functions that the natural ones did years ago. "I really
want live bottom oyster reefs, with the water filtration and habitat
they offer," said Capt. John Mayer, president of the Solomons
Charter Captains' Association at a meeting here last week.
Mr. Mayer's group has joined with the Maryland
Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association and the Southern Maryland
Chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association/Maryland to form the
Chesapeake Bay Artificial Reef Coalition. The Coalition's first move
was to contact the Maryland Environmental Services, a public/private
agency that took over operation of Maryland's artificial reef
program from the Department of Natural Resources in 1997, operating
under reef permits issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Picking an appropriate site is the most
fundamental step in the process. Fortunately, the collected wisdom
of the three- partner organizations is considerable. These anglers
have bounced sinkers on and looked though their depth sounders at
these bottom features for years. Together, they know this part of
the Bay as well as they know the cockpits of their boats.
The first site is a shelf in 40-60 feet of
water off the southern end of Taylor's Island, with 100 feet of
water outside and a collection of humps and flats inside. Last
October, the Coalition and MES found some 150-foot-long steel
girders encrusted with concrete from an old bridge and hired McLean
Contracting to place them in a V-shaped pattern on the shelf, to
form the Taylor's Island Artificial Reef. MES has located three old
barges that will go onto the site next. The Coalition plans to make
the lat/lon coordinates of this reef and those of future ones widely
available to the angling public.
step will be to build up the structure of this reef. The barges will
provide platforms to prevent additional material from sinking into
the bottom or being covered with shifting sand. Coalition members
are actively searching for sources of appropriate recyclable
materials like crushed concrete from bridge re-decking projects.
Other possibilities include concrete igloo-shaped "reef balls" made
by MSSA volunteers, oyster shell set with spat (baby oysters) by the
Maryland Oyster Recovery Partnership, and chunks of marl (marine
limestone) set with spat by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
To help pay for this first reef effort, the
Solomons Charter Captains' Association will donate proceeds from its
annual Fishing Fair and Seminars, which take place Feb. 22-23 at the
Calvert County Fair Grounds (for information, contact Capt. Mayer at
240-417-2406 or visit www.fishsolomons.com) and from a fall fishing
tournament. MSSA will donate the proceeds of several fishing fairs
and flea markets (for information, call Capt. Bruno Vasta, MSSA
President, at 410-326-2622. Other sources of funding have expressed
Once the flow of funds is
established, the Coalition members will begin working with MES to
develop up to five additional reef sites. This is no one-shot deal.
These folks are committed long-term. Such well-planned grassroots
partnerships are all too rare, but they can be crucial elements in
restoring the bay's health. We'll keep an eye on this project and
report progress from time to time.
John Page Williams is the Chesapeake Bay
Foundation's Senior Naturalist. He is based in Annapolis but travels
all over the Chesapeake watershed to find people at work on local
projects that restore the Bay's health. For an illustrated version
of this column, log onto CBF's web site at http://www.cbf.org/.
Published February 13, 2003, The Capital, Annapolis,
Copyright © 2003 The Capital, Annapolis,