A group of devoted fishermen and charter boat captains in the Chesapeake Bay isn't much interested in the construction of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge. What the anglers and boaters care about is the old one's demolition.
When the first span of the new Wilson Bridge opens next summer, the old one will be torn down to make way for the second span. A coalition of watermen has been lobbying the project's organizers to turn tens of thousands of tons of the rubble into an artificial fishing reef at Point Lookout or Point No Point, two sites in the Chesapeake Bay in southern St. Mary's County.
Dumping concrete debris for artificial reefs is a common practice that provides habitat for all types of aquatic animals, from oysters to striped bass, creating veritable fish magnets.
The Maryland Environmental Service, a not-for-profit public corporation set up to help protect the state's natural resources, holds permits for the two reef sites and has contacted construction managers about dumping about 30,000 tons of concrete from the Wilson Bridge. But bridge officials say no decision has been reached about whether to dump the rubble into the bay or to dispose of it elsewhere.
In the past decade, artificial reefs have been placed in the Chesapeake as watermen have looked for ways to boost the bay's productivity.
Sonney Forrest, a charter captain for 31 years and chairman of the reef committee for the Solomons Charter Captain Association, said the issue became more pressing when he learned that one of the best fishing spots in the bay -- Cove Point's liquefied natural gas terminal in southern Calvert County -- would be closed to fishing for security.
The docks at the terminal provided the right type of structure to attract fish, Forrest said. But in 2003, after years of lying dormant, the terminal reopened for deliveries and the Coast Guard started enforcing a buffer zone of 500 yards around it. Fishermen had to find other places to fish.
"That was a great fishing area. Hundreds of boats fished there. Thousands of pounds of fish were caught," recalled Buddy Harrison Sr., another longtime charter boat captain and owner of a fleet of 20 boats. "Our catch is down because of the Coast Guard and some political decisions to take that gas dock away from us."
Now charter captains have to go to greater lengths to catch fish, traveling up and down the bay rather than just going to the gas docks.
On a recent Friday morning, Forrest pulled his 13-ton fishing boat out of Calvert Marina in Solomons just before dawn and led a trip of six customers in search of fish. In the old days, he would have taken them right to the gas docks to catch the legal limit, and then he could have spent the rest of the charter doing other types of fishing.
That trip to the docks would have been 20 minutes. Instead, he had to haul one hour and 15 minutes down the bay to Buoy 72A, also known as the "go-go" buoy, which is short for "I'm going all the way there and then going all the way back," Forrest said. The extra cost for gas adds up on the 60-mile voyage, he said, especially for a boat that gets one mile a gallon and makes an SUV look fuel-efficient.
Forrest said he thinks the demolished bridge would fit in perfectly as an artificial reef and add structure to the bottom of the bay -- something the fish crave and the gas docks provided. "The bridge could be a benefactor to many different people," he said. "If the company that has the bridge does not give it to us, we are losing out and the environment is losing out."
But Michael Baker, environmental manager for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project, said that the fate of the old span was entirely left up to the contractors and that they had not decided what to do. They can either "crush up all the material and use it as an aggregate or take it down and make a fishing reef out of it," Baker said. "Those are the two major options, and it comes down to economics."
According to Baker's back-of-the-envelope calculations, the price of getting the material off the bottom of the Potomac after demolition, transporting it roughly 80 miles to Point Lookout or Point No Point and then bulldozing it into the bay is $500,000 to $1 million. And he cautioned that the resulting reef would be of modest size: "We're not talking about 1,000 acres of fisheries. It would be an acre and a half," he said. "That's a nice house for a lot of fish."
This type of work is not without precedent, even for the Wilson Bridge. Just north of the bridge is Fox Ferry Cove, where an old deck from the bridge, taken off in 1985, was dumped into the Potomac. Its ruins poke out over the surface of the water.
"It's a tremendous living example of a fish reef," Baker said. "I've seen boaters there every day."
In fact, the project was so successful in the eyes of fishermen who use it that they're upset the bridge won't be dumped in the Potomac.
"It bothers me that they're going to take this concrete out to the Chesapeake Bay when we have cost-saving uses for it on the Potomac River," said Ken Penrod, a fishing guide on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. "I actually provided them with six different proposal ideas a year ago to use it like I used the other concrete for fish habitat and shoreline eroding habitat."
Baker said he had not heard of these proposals.
And besides, the bay really needs the help, Forrest said.
"The whole Chesapeake is changing," he said. "I won't say it's dying, but it's certainly stressed."