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North Carolina Department of Environment Quality

NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Marine Fisheries - History of NC Reefs

Marine Fisheries

Sinking of the Schoolhouse
The sinking of the Schoolhouse

History of North Carolina’s Reefs

8-point rule

 
 

Fishing has always been an important aspect of life in Eastern North Carolina. The sounds and estuaries, the many rivers and creeks have served as a source of food, livelihood and recreation since the first Native Americans moved here several thousand years ago. While the fundamentals of fishing have changed very little over the centuries, new technology, better fishing opportunities and more coastal residents have made the pursuit of fish more popular than ever.

In the early 20th century, a select few fishermen knew the locations of natural rocks and reefs, guarding them in secrecy as favored fishing spots. As time progressed, the secrets got out and coastal North Carolina became known as a world-class destination for sport fishing. During the 1920s and 1930s the fledgling sport fishing industry continued to develop, and by the close of World War II, sunken vessels were sparking interest. Fishermen began to realize that vessel casualties of the war had a silver lining – habitat for diverse and abundant marine life, including fish to catch.

Unfortunately, for most recreational fishermen at the time, many WWII vessels were too far offshore and out of range for their small fishing boats. Only on the calmest days, and at considerable risk, could smaller, private fishing craft enjoy the sport offered by the wrecks. Accordingly, during the 1950s and 1960s, a number of fishing clubs attempted to build their own reefs closer to some of North Carolina’s navigable inlets.

Early attempts at reef construction were fairly haphazard affairs. Automobile bodies, washing machines, old automobile tires, scrap concrete and numerous types of other materials were dumped at selected locations offshore in an effort to provide areas where recreational fishermen in small boats could fish without risking life and limb. In 1964, the Fabulous Fishing Club of Morehead City obtained a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct an artificial reef about 2 miles off Atlantic Beach, at Latitude 34° 40’ North, Longitude 76° 45’ West. That reef, constructed primarily of rubble from the old Newport River Bridge and tire units formed the basis of what is today AR-315 (Atlantic Beach Reef). Also during the 1960s local fishermen established two ad hoc fishing reefs off New Hanover County. Founders of these reefs marked locations off Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach, and constructed habitat using their personal boats to transport small items such as weighted automobile tires, old stoves, and washing machines.

These do-it-yourself reefs did improve inshore fishing, but they had little profile to attract the larger mid-water species, and they had a tendency to get covered by sand quickly. However, in areas where reefs were built, they were generally considered successful, even if only for a short time. The reefs attracted fish, the fish attracted fishermen, and the fishermen spent money. Commercial fishermen also found that often their catches were greater in the vicinity of a reef than had previously been the case.

In 1969, Mr. Meares Harriss, Jr., Vice Chairman of the New Hanover County Commissioners, spearheaded a move to have two tugboats, Firefighter and Mohawk, added to the reefs to give them better profile. The vessels were donated by the Stone Towing Line of Wilmington. The sites selected for the reefs were on hard bottom to prevent the old tugs from sinking into the sand. Both vessels were sunk in June 1970, resulting in vastly improved fish catches in the area.

Sinking 2
The Markham being towed out to sea for sinking

The success of the early artificial reefs did not go unnoticed by what was then the North Carolina Division of Commercial and Sports Fisheries (now the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries). By the early 1970s the Artificial Reef Program was under development and most of the existing private reefs were quickly absorbed into it. In 1972 the federal Maritime Administration Artificial Fish Reef Program was established under Public Law 92-402. This program authorized the Secretary of Commerce to transfer over-aged Liberty Ships in the National Defense Reserve Fleet to any state filing an application in accordance with the law's procedures for use on artificial reefs. Between 1972 and 1978 North Carolina acquired four Liberties as additions to its reef system — the start of modern artificial reef enhancement in North Carolina.

Using diverse materials and coordinating with numerous public and private entities, the Artificial Reef Program developed into one of the most active state enhancement programs in the country. Over the past several decades the Artificial Reef Program has constructed and maintained a total of 42 ocean and 20 estuarine reefs, 14 of which also serve as oyster sanctuaries. The ocean reefs vary considerably in depth and distance from shore, though they are situated so that they can be reached from every maintained inlet in the state. The estuarine reefs are found in Pamlico Sound and its tributaries, the Chowan River and the New River. Decommissioned vessels, concrete scrap, prefabricated reef units, and other rock can be found throughout the artificial reef system, providing substance and profile to what was once bare sand bottom. Today’s artificial reefs host thriving biological fish communities and are a playground for fishermen, divers and biologists, alike.

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N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries • 3441 Arendell Street • Morehead City, NC 28557 • 252-726-7021 or 800-682-2632

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