Artificial reef projects raise environmental questions

The USS Arthur W. Radford, a 563-foot naval destroyer, once rode the waves. Now it will break the tides.

Private contractors are preparing to sink it into the Atlantic Ocean, the latest addition to a Navy recycling program that turns outworn battleships into marine life habitats.

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The Radford will go down 20 miles east of Fenwick Island, where officials are hoping it will prove a powerful lure for fish — and tourists — on the sandy sea floor.

“It should dramatically increase the use of dive boats operating on all three states’ ports,” boosting tourism for Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey, said Jeff Tinsman, Delaware’s artificial reef coordinator.

In the midst of an economic downturn, sinking naval vessels for artificial reefs aims to achieve multiple goals. It creates new ocean habitat and a tourist destination, while also ridding the Navy of outdated ships. Half of all U.S. coastal states have created artificial reefs or have plans to do so.

But some environmentalists, as well as federal and independent scientists, question whether the program provides ecological benefits.

“They’re throwing debris down there and saying it’s an economic opportunity, but they’re not looking into the environmental impacts,” said Colby Self, who is the green ship-recycling coordinator for the Basel Action Network and co-authored a recent report on the Navy’s sinking program.

Only a few studies have examined the impact on the ocean of artificial reefs. The Army Corps of Engineers must approve the projects, and the Environmental Protection Agency inspects each vessel before it’s sunk and can provide advice on where to place it. But state and federal officials are exploring issues such as whether traces of remaining toxic chemicals pose a hazard and whether the ships concentrate fish in areas where they’re more likely to be caught.

The question of whether artificial reefs provide ecological benefits has “been out there for 50 years or more,” said Tinsman, of Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. “If that was any easy question, it would have been answered long ago.”

Some studies indicate that these human-made reefs may harm ocean species, even as they provide clear economic benefits.

“Adding more habitat is not the issue,” said James A. Bohnsack, a research fishery biologist at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. “You need to protect the fish populations.”

Donald Schregardus, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for the environment, said in a phone interview that when it came to creating reefs, the Navy simply responded to states’ requests.

“We let them decide what they want and if they have an interest in these ships,” Schregardus said. “We are not the experts on whether they are increasing [fish] populations or whether they are the attraction for divers and fishermen. But we want to make sure they’re safe.”

“Our initial experience appears to be positive,” Schregardus said. “We anticipate it remaining in our toolbox as an option.” He said the Navy also disposes of old ships by donating them to museums or other federal agencies, selling them abroad or scrapping them.

No one questions that artificial reefs attract many aquatic species, including open ocean fish such as mackerel and amberjack and some sharks. Billy Causey, the Southeast regional director for the National Marine Sanctuary program, said researchers are trying to determine whether sunken vessels make a “salt lick and get the pelagics to stop off and partake of the food there.”

Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware all sunk New York City subway cars off their coasts several years ago. Tinsman said the cars have lured species ranging from black sea bass to triggerfish.

“It’s undeniable, there must be a reason it’s attracting them,” he said, noting that the number of annual fishing trips to one subway car site rose from 300 to 17,000. “That’s the kind of impact something like that can have.”

But some scientists worry that anglers may be catching and consuming fish that have absorbed contaminants leaching from decommissioned vessels. These ships have carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), as well as oil, asbestos and other pollutants.

The EPA, which issued guidelines for ship sinking in 2006 along with the Transportation Department’s Maritime Administration, requires that any ship destined to become an artificial reef not contain PCB levels above 50 parts per billion. But some fish can accumulate PCBs in their bodies over time as they consume smaller fish, causing their contaminant levels to rise above that threshold.

Jon Dodrill, environmental administrator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s division of marine fisheries management, has been monitoring PCB levels in reef fish near the site of the USS Oriskany, a naval aircraft carrier that was sunk to create a reef in May 2006. State officials identified a spike in fish-tissue PCB contamination a year after the sinking.

Since then, the contamination levels have dropped below advisory levels, although the most recent round of test results found elevated PCB levels in two red porgy and two scamp grouper that were sampled. “We’re interested to see if this downward trend continues or stabilizes at a lower level,” Dodrill said, adding that the peak levels of contamination would be a problem only for people relying on these fish for their main source of food.

Maine sanctuary managers are hoping that the increase in divers and anglers near artificial reefs will ease human pressure on natural reefs. Sean Morton, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, said that a sunken ship off Key Largo has diverted tourists from neighboring natural reefs but one off Key West has not.

“There’s no need to get any more artificial reefs done at this point, until we know the impact of what we’ve already done,” Causey said of the Florida Keys.

In the meantime, the $945,000 project to clean, reconfigure and sink the Radford is close to completion. Contractors have removed the wiring, ductwork and gaskets that could contain PCBs, and they continue to test for remaining traces of the chemicals. They have auctioned off the brass, bronze and other exotic alloys from fixtures and opened up vertical shafts and missile silos. EPA inspectors continue to do final checks on the project, and contractors are focused on cleaning some remaining engine rooms.

After towing the Radford to its designated site later this month or in early August, contractors will cut holes in the ship, which participated in the Persian Gulf War as well as the Navy’s bombardment of Beirut in the early 1980s. Then the vessel, which went out of service March 18, 2003, will sink beneath the waves.

 
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