Posted by on January 08, 2005 at 20:44:10:
Artificial reefs reel in tourists
Structures attract fishermen, divers
By Brock Vergakis
The Sun News
When Cameron Sebastian looks at the ocean, he sees an untapped gold mine in tourism revenue on the ocean floor.
He's the manager of Coastal Scuba and Little River Fishing Fleet and knows that only a couple of miles off the Horry County coastline near Little River are two artificial reefs that he says have potential to lure thousands of recreational divers and fishermen to the Grand Strand.
Within the next two weeks, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources will help Sebastian build up one of the reefs by sending a 55-foot vessel to Little River. Sebastian will add concrete panels to it before it's sunk about 10 miles offshore this spring.
Such artificial reefs are increasingly becoming a driving economic force in the Carolinas as they create destinations for a multimillion-dollar recreational fishing industry and a growing scuba diving base.
"Myrtle Beach is a huge, huge tourist destination. And the more stuff that's put out [on the reefs] for people to dive and fish on, the more people we'll draw to the area," Sebastian said. "From a business standpoint, building these types of reefs ... is something anybody along the Grand Strand would want to get involved in."
Artificial reefs create a habitat for numerous species of fish almost immediately after they enter the water by providing shade, hardened structures for aquatic vegetation to grow on and protection from strong currents.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates the economic effect of marine recreational fishing in South Carolina is $302 million. It is estimated at $960 million in North Carolina, which has a larger coastline and population.
The majority of artificial reefs in the area are in Georgetown County and Brunswick County, N.C. Horry County's coast has only a few artificial reefs, primary because there are fewer inlet accesses for fishing and dive boats, according to the S.C. DNR, which determines where reefs go.
Reefs in S.C. waters
Creating artificial reefs can be expensive, especially if it involves sinking a boat.
Depending on the size of the boat, it can cost between $20,000 and $60,000, and sometimes more, to make a boat environmentally suitable to be sunk in the ocean.
In South Carolina, the DNR picks up most of the costs associated with artificial reefs, although clubs such as the Grand Strand Saltwater Anglers Association hold fund-raisers for the program.
The department's artificial-reef program typically has a budget of about $100,000 a year. But that can vary greatly some years because the state uses a portion of its recreational saltwater fishing license fee to fund its artificial-reef program.
"When the program really took off was about 1991, when the saltwater fishing stamp went into place," said Bob Martore, the DNR's artificial reef coordinator. "Since that time, it's been a pretty well-funded program. It's grown quite a bit since then."
The cost of an annual saltwater fishing license stamp is $10 and is required of anyone who harvests oysters and clams or fishes in saltwater from a private boat.
In 1991, the DNR did a study that showed the economic effect of artificial reefs in South Carolina was $20 million. Since then, the number of artificial reefs has nearly doubled to about 45.
That's helped out companies such as Coastal Scuba, which takes customers to dive on old ship wrecks and artificial reefs several miles away from the shore where visibility in the water can reach 90 feet on a clear day.
"(Artificial reefs) are also very popular with divers. We've helped the dive industry quite a bit. Almost all of the dive shops take charters to some of our reef sites," Martore said.
Martore said the state is exploring doing another economic impact study.
What's helped the reef program grow in South Carolina, particularly in the Charleston area, is the donation of materials from shipbuilding and scrap companies that want to get rid of excess material for as little as possible near port.
"The main reason if one area gets more material than another is that the biggest part is just the availability of material - things like barges and scrap material," Martore said. "A lot of it is because [of] the number of shipyards, ports and towing companies around [Charleston]."
Reefs pay off for Brunswick
The artificial reef program has been particularly successful in Brunswick County, where there are seven artificial reefs.
That's largely due to the creation of the Long Bay Artificial Reef Association in 1984, which spearheads fund-raising efforts to create and enhance the reefs.
"We like to think we started a fishery that didn't exist before," said Dale McDowell, the association's president.
The U.S. Open King Mackerel Tournament in Brunswick County has an estimated $2 million economic effect on the Southport area economy, according to the Oak Island-Southport Area Chamber of Commerce.
Some of the funds raised from the tournament go to buy materials to add to artificial reefs, said Karen Spa, the chamber's executive vice president.
"We have a strong artificial-reef program located off Oak Island in our waters here in Brunswick County. That in itself has done a tremendous job promoting recreational angling in our area," Spa said.
There are also four large annual fishing tournaments held in southern Brunswick County, based out of the Ocean Isle Fishing Center in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C.
The majority of artificial reefs in North Carolina are funded by local fishing clubs. The Long Bay Artificial Reef Association was formed from one of those fishing club.
In the past 20 years, it's received financial support from inland fishing clubs from Charlotte, Raleigh and Winston-Salem as well as Brunswick County commissioners. It sank two tug boats off Brunswick County last year and will sink another this spring.
There are 47 artificial reefs in North Carolina, and without broad public support from fishing clubs and local governments, that might not be possible, said Jim Francesconi, artificial-reef coordinator with the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries. In the past four years, his program's budget has gone from $150,000 to $50,000.
"If it wasn't for the public support, we'd be dead in the water," he said.
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