By Matt Winter
Published in Tideline magazine, July/August edition
A federal research ship surveying the new S.C. Memorial Reef in late June provided good news to anglers and reef supporters: The two barges that make up the new offshore reef 60 miles southeast of Charleston came to rest on the sea floor upright, with most of their welded-on reef material intact.
Video taken with a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) also showed that the structures were already attracting fish.
The survey by the NOAA ship RV Pisces verified the barges’ coordinates, which anglers need to start trolling at both sites (see coordinates and notes from the survey at right).
The verified coordinates indicate that one of the barges hit bottom about a mile and a half outside of its permitted zone inside a Marine Protected Area, where trolling for pelagic game fish is allowed but bottom fishing is not. The other barge came to rest very close to the MPA boundary.
Whether that barge — the first one dropped during two deployments in May and June — is inside the MPA boundary remains uncertain. Officials with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council said in late June that Barge 1 was inside the MPA, but mapping with Garmin and Google Earth Pro software indicates it came to rest about a quarter-mile outside the boundary. (Efforts by Tideline magazine to verify the position of Barge 1 relative to the MPA boundary were ongoing at press time).
The barges’ exact locations won’t affect their intended use as a trolling destination, only whether anglers can target snapper-grouper species at the sites.
The two 260-foot barges — which were outfitted with welded-on shipping containers, towers and even a crane —were dropped in two separate trips in May and June by a mix of private and government forces. The deployment followed years of private fundraising by a grassroots group of local offshore anglers.
Throughout its long planning and fundraising stages, the reef had been touted as a future haven for bottom fish, a potential “fish factory” where heavily pressured grouper and snapper species could flourish, breed and supply fresh stocks for areas outside the MPA. Such a reef also would attract highly sought-after trolling targets such as blue marlin, tuna, wahoo and dolphin.
The barges were bound for a 26-square-mile, rectangular Marine Protected Area, nearly 6 miles long and more than 3 miles wide in about 300-500 feet of water.
A DNR official involved in the Memorial Reef project said shifting ocean conditions, slower-then-expected sinking and safety concerns were factors in at least one barge missing its intended target inside the MPA.
“Barge 2 was anchored well inside the permitted area when the valves were opened and sinking began,” Bob Martore wrote in an email in June. “For some reason that we really don’t know, the vessel simply wouldn’t sink. It floated in place for hours while the seas became rougher as time went on. As the seas increased the barge slowly started drifting away.”
Martore said the tugboat captain didn’t think it would be safe to put someone back on the barge in rough seas to tie back up to the tug. “After five hours of slowly sinking and drifting, this is where the barge ended up,” he said.
Martore said Barge No. 1, which was deployed a few weeks before Barge 2, appeared to drop “right on the line.”
Mel Bell, head of the DNR’s fisheries management program, advised against bottom fishing at the barges but did encourage sportfishermen and women to take advantage of the reef as the hot new offshore trolling destination it was intended to be. The barges appear to sit about 5 miles apart, giving big-game fishermen a unique opportunity to set up figure-eight trolling patterns around the deep-water structures.
As to the future of bottom fishing at the reef, officials could begin a lengthy process to extend the MPA boundaries to include both barge structures.