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Article: New Artificial Reef

Saltwater Marine Fishing Regulations Massachusetts Saltwater Fishing

Artificial reef created in Nantucket Sound to enhance recreational fishing

Artificial reefs are man-made structures intentionally placed on the seafloor to create fish habitat. Many Atlantic coast states use artificial reefs to entice marine life into areas with little to no structure.

The creation of artificial reefs in the United States was first documented in South Carolina in 1830, where local fishermen sank log huts to improve fishing. Since then, thousands of artificial reefs have been developed, particularly in the south Atlantic region. These reefs are popular destinations for millions of recreational anglers. In 2016, MarineFisheries used Recreational Saltwater Fishing Permit revenue to create the first recreational fishing reef in Massachusetts in almost two decades.

On March 23, 2016, sixteen hundred cubic yards of concrete rubble was deployed into the waters of Nantucket Sound, two miles south of Saquatucket Harbor. Dubbed Harwich Reef, the area is almost 10 acres in size and lies in 32 feet of water. Structures extend three to six feet off the bottom and are spread out in patches, making a diverse habitat perfect for reef and visiting marine life.

Motivated by the success of a 128-acre artificial reef off Yarmouth—originally deployed in 1978—several for-hire boat captains on Cape Cod requested MarineFisheries investigate a possible new reef site in Nantucket Sound. Site selection and permitting for the Harwich Reef began in 2007. It took over four years to get the appropriate permits and surveys complete. Hundreds of hours were spent between diving and assessing photos of the sea floor to find the best site. Forward thinking Harwich officials set aside clean concrete debris during the demolition of Harwich High School to use as reefing material. By spring of 2014, permits had been secured and 1,000 cubic yards of material was available for deployment. In early March 2016, material was trucked from Harwich to a waiting barge in New Bedford Harbor. Once loaded, the barge made its way to the site, deploying materials the morning of March 23. The Harwich Reef was born.

During the permitting and planning process, MarineFisheries proposed a regulation to address potential user group conflicts at the site. On June 28, 2016, the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission approved a regulation prohibiting all commercial fishing activity on the reef site and within a buffer zone extending an additional 328 feet from the site in all directions. The Harwich artificial reef site became the first and only site in Massachusetts dedicated exclusively to recreational saltwater fishing.

Fish and other animals moved in almost immediately. MarineFisheries staff received reports of recreational anglers catching their black sea bass bag limit (five fish, each 15 inches or larger) at the site on May 21—the opening day of the 2016 recreational season. In June, our dive survey team saw black sea bass, scup, and tautog of legal and sublegal size. An acoustic receiver deployed in April recorded several tagged striped bass on the reef by the third week of May and twelve different striped bass travelling in the vicinity of the reef over the course of the recreational season. Other acoustically tagged fish picked up by the receiver included an Atlantic sturgeon in May and a white shark in October. Recreational anglers were able to enjoy the reef throughout the summer season and well into November.

Since deployment, the reef has been very popular with Cape Cod residents and visitors. On April 30, a Rockin’ the Reef benefit was held in Harwich. The event was attended by many local reef enthusiasts and generated several thousand dollars for future reef research and development. The Harwich harbormasters office has developed outreach materials and posted the reef site coordinates on the town website to help provide information to users interested in the reef. The site is expected to provide additional recreational fishing opportunities and generate considerable economic benefits to the region for decades to come.

As the reef ages, it will undergo various stages of colonization and succession by marine life. Eventually the reef will look less like a man-made habitat and more like a natural one. More information on this and other artificial reef sites in Massachusetts can be found at www.mass.gov/dmf/artificialreefs.