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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 24, 2003

Program could pay for more artificial reefs

 •  Monitor groups help coral reef conservation

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Staff Writer

State officials hope to take advantage of a new federal program to sink scrapped federal ships for artificial reefs, which can improve ocean productivity and create fishing and diving opportunities.

The state now has five artificial reefs, and would have more except for the expense, said Bill Devick, head of the state Division of Aquatic Resources.

"We've had other opportunities to get vessels for artificial reefs, but the preparation process is very expensive. You have to make sure there are no contaminants left aboard," he said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration, faced with high costs to dismantle obsolete ships, has concluded it is cheaper to help states cover the cost of preparing them for sinking.

"This program is brand new. The government wants to get rid of ships — mostly old cargo ships — and we can provide funding to remediate these ships," said Robyn Boerstling, director of congressional and public affairs for the Maritime Administration.

It can cost $2 million to $2.5 million to have a wrecker take a big ship apart and there is essentially no salvage value, she said. Congress has now authorized the agency to spend some of its ship disposal money to clean vessels for use as artificial reefs. As much as $500,000 to $1 million could be available, said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

"Reefing now becomes a practical option, and we look forward to working with the states to make it happen," he said.

The ships are quickly colonized by marine life such as corals, algae and fish, providing a diversity of marine habitat that in many cases did not exist. These artificial reefs also can provide recreational opportunities for scuba divers.

"Fish biomass more than doubles. I think more recent studies show that it is adding to the productivity of an area. In the first few months it's just juveniles, but the next year many of the fish are adults," said Brian Kanenaka, a state aquatic biologist and head of the state's artificial reef program.

Kanenaka said four of the state's artificial reefs are in water 60 to 90 feet deep. A site off Wai'anae has two barges, the 165-foot minesweeper Mahi and two landing craft. A site off Kahala has five barges and a landing craft. A reef between Kualoa and Kahana has a couple of barges, and a site off Keawakapu in Maui's Kihei area has an old longliner and some other vessels.

A deeper site about 360 feet down off 'Ewa includes a 133-foot Navy barge, a 174-foot former Navy ship and two dry dock doors, one 100 feet long and one 130 feet long. Additionally, various sites have collections of old cars, concrete structures, concrete pipes and concrete-anchored collections of tires.

"We don't use car bodies anymore because of the cost to clean them," Kanenaka said.

Hawai'i's five artificial reefs are way behind some states. Florida has more than 100 sunken-ship artificial reefs.

"I think we'd be very interested in this," Devick said. He warned that these projects never happen quickly because of a long list of government approvals that are needed, both at the federal and state level.

"The planning and permitting process is quite complex," Devick said.

Those issues have reduced the ability of states to take advantage of the federal program, and only one ship has been transferred to a state in the past five years for use as an artificial reef. The Maritime Administration has launched a task force to develop ship-cleaning guidelines. The group is to include the Environmental Protection Agency, Coast Guard, Fish and Wildlife Service and the Navy.

Kanenaka said the state has been offered ships before, but has been unable to accept them for lack of the money to clean them of oil, plastics and other toxic materials.

Most of the obsolete federal ships are at sites in California, Texas and Virginia. Boerstling said it was not clear whether the federal money could be used to tow ships from those locations to a reef site as far away as Hawai'i.

If it works out, the state would welcome the opportunity to add to its reefs, Kanenaka said.

"I've had fishermen tell me that they have so much fun on these reefs," he said.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.