State rebuilding fishing reefs

BILOXI — When the former menhaden fishing vessel the Great Wicomico settled to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico last month 13 miles south of Horn Island, it became part of an effort to rebuild Mississippi’s artificial reefs devastated during Hurricane Katrina.

There are 13 offshore and 54 inshore artificial reefs on about 16,000 acres off the Mississippi coast, said Kerwin Cuevas, artificial reef bureau director for the state Department of Marine Resources.

“Katrina came and destroyed approximately 85 to 90 percent of Mississippi’s inshore and offshore reefs,” he said. “We are in the middle of refurbishing these reefs thanks to a NOAA grant.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant is about $3 million for five years, he said.

William Walker, executive director of the Department of Marine Resources, said the artificial reef program fills a void in the state’s offshore waters.

“The Gulf of Mexico water bottom is kind of like a desert. It is just kind of flat. There’s not much there in terms of structure other than manmade things like oil rigs,” he said.

The artificial reefs created from old vessels and concrete structures “provide a place for whole communities of fish and plant species to grow and reproduce.”

The artificial reef program is a “huge and very successful program in terms of providing critical habitat to a wide variety of species,” said Walker.

The state spends about a $1 million a year on the program, he said. “It is an economical development tool that provides additional fishing opportunity to our residents and visitors alike.”

Cuevas said a study on the economic impact of artificial reefs before Hurricane Katrina found the reefs were worth $78.3 million annually to the state.

“Fishermen come to fish them,” Cuevas said. “They use gas, They buy boats. They buy tackle. They pay charter boat guys to bring them out to these reefs. So, these reefs are very important to the economy of the state of Mississippi.”

The NOAA money is also being used to restore oyster reefs and inshore habitat, he said.

“For the first two years past Katrina we had none, zero,” he said of the oyster harvest. “Katrina demolished 90 percent of them.”

Hurricane Katrina scoured the artificial reef into the bottom, he said. Cuevas likened it to someone with their foot in the sand at the surf’s edge. “Your foot just gradually goes down in the sand from the water.”

The artificial reef program began in 1978 when a World War II Liberty cargo ship was sunk. Only one of five of the wartime cargo ships submerged offshore remain, he said.

The deepest artificial reefs are in about 135 feet of water while the shallowest are in 4- to 6-foot depths, he said.

Besides old steel-hulled vessels, the program drops concrete debris and specially made concrete reef balls, he said. Also sent to bottom is old military equipment, he said.

The artificial reef program earned the praise of F.J. Eicke, acting president of Horn Island chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association.

“He has done a great job renewing old-damaged offshore reefs and creating new ones,” Eicke said.

Walker said the program often uses material that would otherwise have gone to waste. “It is a lot of concrete that used to get thrown away.”

Another component of the program is it supports the aquaculture program going on between the Department of Marine Resources and the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory at Ocean Springs.

“That program allows us to produce speckled trout that can colonize and utilize near shore reefs such as the concrete rubble that we placed south of Deer Island,” Walker said. “We also produce red snapper to be able to populate the offshore deeper water reefs.”

The artificial reef program is aided by the volunteer group Mississippi Gulf Fishing Banks. Ralph Humphrey, president, said the group once had the lead role in the artificial reef program, but that has moved to DMR.

The nonprofit group does get money for reefs, which is channeled back to DMR, he said.

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On the Net:

Mississippi Gulf Fishing Banks, http://www.mgfb.com

Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, http://www.dmr.state.ms.us

Harlan Kirgan/The Mississippi Press