Do artificial reefs enhance the biomass of fish species…or do they just provide a place for existing fish to congregate? If reefs congregate fish, does this increase rates of exploitation by predators (including fishermen)? Anglers say that when warm water comes into the bay in August, all the bait and fish leave. Could artificial reefs help provide a haven for bait and shelter for these fish, enhancing bay fishing? These are some of the questions on which a new, well-funded reef experiment in Narragansett and Mt. Hope bays hopes to shed some light.
Nicole Lengyel, principal biologist at the RI Department of Environmental Management, is managing a new reef project in collaboration with D. Steven Brown, coastal restoration scientist for The Nature Conservancy.
The five-year project started in 2013 and includes the planning, design, construction and monitoring of small-scale experimental reefs in the middle of Narragansett Bay. It aims to evaluate the use of reefs as an enhancement and conservation tool. The project will try to determine if artificial reefs increase the abundance of sport fish such as tautog, black sea bass, scup and cunner (chogee) and if they attract existing numbers of fish and increase rates of exploitation (mortality).
The project will cost approximately $715,760, with 75 percent of the cost federally funded by the Sportfish Restoration fund and the other 25 percent from The Nature Conservancy and the RI saltwater recreational license fund.
At a RI Saltwater Anglers Association meeting, researcher Brown from The Nature Conservancy said, “The goal of the project is to conduct a study, an experiment, to assess small scale reefs to determine if they increase recruitment, increase fish productivity and see what benefits reefs will have for Rhode Island.” Nicole Lengyel of DEM said, “We want to attract fish and provide refuge to offset mortality and to improve growth rates…we hope this approach grows fish.”
Three locations will be used for the experiment, with similar bottom sediment types, water depth and slope. Each site design will mimic a low-profile bolder field and contain approximately 1,120 reef balls of various sizes for a total coverage area of 2,730 square feet. An elaborate site model was used to locate the experimental artificial reefs. Water depth, bottom sediment type and water oxygen levels were plotted on bay maps. The model overlaid the location of shellfish beds, eel and widgeo grass, and boat traffic in the bay to identify suitable areas for reefs.
Two of the three artificial reef sites are in the East Passage of Narragansett Bay on the northwest coast of Aquidneck Island, east of Prudence Island. The third site is just inside Mt. Hope Bay, northeast of the Mt. Hope Bridge.
The project timeline includes a location, design and planning phase scheduled to be completed at the beginning of 2014. Nicole Lengyel said, “Fishing community input on the project has included presentations to the RI Marine Fisheries Council and Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association.” Construction is scheduled to be completed by mid-2014. An extensive monitoring and evaluation period will take place from 2014 to 2017 with annual reports to DEM and the fishing community given each year.
Do reefs work in other places?
I like the idea of artificial reefs. Studies show that one square yard of reef can hold 3,500 juvenile crabs and up to 135 immature fish. One square foot of structure just three to four feet high can support up to 100,000 tiny creatures like mussels, clams, crabs, worms and shrimp. Artificial reefs such as the reefs planned for Narragansett and Mt. Hope Bays attract bottom fish, and they also host non-bottom-dwellers in areas above the reefs.
An article titled “Reef Madness” by Gary Caputi (Saltwater Sportsman magazine, January 2010) relates that the state of New Jersey is the poster child for artificial reef construction. At the time, New Jersey was boasting that it had 15 artificial reefs constructed over the previous 25 years. The list of items and material that dress the reefs is impressive and includes 7.5 million cubic yards of dredge rubble and demolition concrete, 158 sunken vessels, 397 tanks and armored personnel carriers, 269 subway cars, 31 railroad flatcars, 5,500 concrete reef balls and 16,500 other concrete castings.
Caputi noted that although reefs only cover one percent of the fishable area off the New Jersey coast, reefs account for approximately one of every four fish caught by anglers.
Recreational angler support
Anglers will be encouraged to fish the new artificial reefs and will be asked to report what is being caught there. Information on how to report will be communicated to fishermen.
What is encouraging about the new artificial reef project in Narragansett and Mt. Hope Bays is that funding for five years of monitoring has already been built into the project. So the data to determine if the artificial reefs are attracting and growing fish will be available.
These artificial reef projects are a step in the right direction; an attempt to grow fish populations in our bays and along our shores, rather than just regulating what is taken out of the ocean. Reports on these projects will continue as information is available.
Where’s the bite
Cod fishing has been good. “Last week Bob Morel, captain of the sport fishing boat TLC, landed a 33-pound cod along with 22 others while fishing with his party south of Block Island on a wreck,” said Elisa Martin of Snug Harbor Marina, South Kingstown. Capt. Frank Blount of the Frances Fleet reported that cod/sea bass and tautog trips showed marked signs of improvement after the waters were shaken up from the southerly gales the week before. Roger Simpson of the Frances Fleet said, “We generally found there are still some decent numbers of good size sea bass and also good numbers of ling that seem to be moving up onto the hard ground. A few handfuls of sea bass in the 3.5 to 5 lb range this past week so still some jumbos around. The ling were generally on the fair size but there were some “mini baseball bats” mixed in and on a few outings anglers had upwards to a half dozen ling apiece.” (Ling are long slender members of the cod family that can be as large as two meters; they are good eating and often interchanged with cod in fresh, salted or dried forms.)
Tautog fishing has remained good, but anglers/captains are moving to find them. The Seven B’s party boat reports a slow steady pick of tautog Wednesday. Visit them at www.sevenbs.com. “The Island Current party boat had a good tautog fishing trip Friday with some passages limiting out. They were fishing the Clay Head, Block Island area,” said Martin of Snug Harbor. Simpson, of the Frances Fleet said, “We are planning on wrapping up tautog season next weekend and the Frances Fleet is offering a promotion for the two days of scheduled togging so call the office for further details.” Capt. Charlie Donilon of Snappa Charters fished several spots around Block Island and the East Fishing grounds Saturday. He said, “I decided to try a spot located just south of Pt. Judith, which has been producing black fish quite well lately. As luck would have, the blacks were there in numbers and feeding for the next half hour. This stop made the day for us.” Visit www.snappacharters.com or call 401/782-4040.
Captain Dave Monti has been fishing and shellfishing on Narragansett Bay for over 40 years. He holds a captain’s master license and a charter fishing license. Contact or forward fishing news and photos to Capt. Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.noflukefishing.com.