Born out of the Wrightsville Beach King Mackerel Tournament’s consistent support of local habitat enhancement, the Onslow Bay Artificial Reef Association took over the role of promoting man-made structure at the many reefs from Cape Lookout to Cape Fear in 2001.
Made up of a longtime group of local anglers, the Association has worked to enhance and expand a multitude of the area’s artificial structures and poured their efforts into the creation of new reefs, including the Capt. Greg MicKey, a 180’ former menhaden vessel sunk near the end of Frying Pan Shoals to commemorate a much-loved local diver and fisherman who disappeared on a spearfishing trip in the area.
Board members Rita Merritt, Wayne Ziegler, and Lee Parsons most recent work, however, has focused on sites closer to shore. Teaming up with organization Fish For Tomorrow, they’ve secured the funding to enhance a number of the area’s most visited sites within a few miles of the Onslow Bay coast.
“I started talking to Jay Salaven,” Capt. Tim Barefoot (Fish for Tomorrow Director and OBARA board member) explained. “He used to work in grant-writing for the state of Delaware and agreed to work with us if I could help him cross catching a grouper off his bucket list.
Barefoot made short work of his end of the deal, and Salaven’s efforts soon secured a $673,000 grant to secure and deploy material on a host of local reef sites. With a private $100,000 donation from the Cameron family, the organization now had over three-quarters of a million dollars to embark on the largest artificial reef project in North Carolina’s history.
After analyzing a number of options in order to use that money to source material that would have the greatest impact, the OBARA board found a pair of efficient local solutions. The cleaning and preparation required for even scrapped or abandoned ships like the Greg MicKey is quite extensive and expensive, leading the group to decide on concrete structures: one repurposed and one a new iteration of an older idea.
“We figured out that we can get scrap concrete pipe from local pre-cast companies,” OBARA Executive Director Rita Merritt explained. “It makes an asset out of a liability, as the pre-casters would otherwise have to pay to dispose of it.”
In addition to the scrap pipe, Barefoot and Merritt worked with Wilmington’s Atlantic Coast Industrial to design an economical, brand-new concrete reef structure—the Atlantic Pod.
“They’re a local, affordable alternative,” Barefoot continued.
Made of concrete specifically engineered to allow easy footing for marine growth, the Atlantic Pods are shaped much like rectangular, upside-down flower pots.
Along with over 4500 pieces of the scrap pipe, a pyramid of the first Atlantic Pods await deployment at a staging area in Wilmington.
The sinking of the new material is scheduled to begin in early January at several Wilmington-area sites, including AR-364/Billy Murrell (Figure Eight), AR-370/Meares Harris (Liberty Ship), AR-372/Bruce Barclay Cameron (Five Mile Boxcars), and AR-378/Phillip Wolfe (Marriott) reefs, all located within 5 miles of Masonboro and Carolina Beach inlets—well within range of smaller boats fishing the Cape Fear Coast.
“This material is going to double the size of some of those sites,” Barefoot reported.
Enhancing the nearshore structure fits hand-in-hand with one of Fish for Tomorrow’s central projects–increasing southern flounder populations. The organization has worked with UNCW, NC State, and South Brunswick High School aquaculture programs to make raising flounder in captivity a viable enterprise, both lessening pressure on wild stocks and creating a pathway to future stock enhancement.
“We’d also like to thank NCDMF and (the late) Jim Francesconi,” Barefoot added. “Without their support, none of these inshore or offshore AR projects would be possible. This is fishing license money being used to benefit anglers and fish alike.”
Structure near the beachfront provides flounder with both protection from predators and plenty of smaller prey fish, and augmenting that habitat can only have positive effects on flatfish populations and future viability for commercial and recreational anglers alike.
The same factors that make the nearshore AR’s so popular with flounder (and flounder anglers) make them ideal habitat for many other fish. Sheepshead, tautog, black sea bass, gray trout, and red drum top the list, but juveniles of a myriad of other saltwater species utilize the habitat, making expanding the reef sites beneficial for far more than flounder anglers and populations.
Board members of the Onslow Bay Artificial Reef Association have no intentions of stopping after these many tons of concrete hit the seafloor, and anyone interested in the effort can visit www.obara-ncreefs.org or contact Rita Merritt for more information on the organization and how to support it.