The Artificial Reefs of New Jersey
New Jersey Saltwater Fishing
By Peter Clarke, Senior Fisheries Biologist
New Jersey has a rich history in recreational sportfishing. Since the 1840s, recreational anglers have pursued a variety of sport fish including big game species like giant bluefin tuna, marlin or sharks off the Jersey coast along with catches of nearshore coastal species such as ling, pollock, cod, black sea bass, summer flounder, tautog and of course, striped bass.
A Structured Environment
Fish have three essential environmental requirements: suitable water temperature, available food and suitable habitat for reproduction. Habitat requirements vary considerably between species and life stages. Many species depend on some type of structured habitat that serves either as a refuge from predators or as source of prey organisms that live in, on or around the structure, becoming potential food for the predators. Various fish species find structure in seagrass beds or sand ridges and troughs; other species are attracted to hard structures for the abundance of encrusting organisms (prey) and interstitial space for refuge.
Where’s the Reef?
Nautical charts reveal that natural hard bottom is a habitat type New Jersey generally lacks. States to our north have nearshore topography dominated by rock outcroppings, boulder fields and smaller rubble deposited millennia ago by receding glaciers. These areas provide great vertical structure for fish to live, but generally do not extend south of Long Island. To our south, natural coral and live rock bottoms are common, providing comparable vertical structure for fish habitat. In contrast, coastal waters off New Jersey are generally flat, sandy and featureless.
New Jersey’s Artificial Reef History
By the 1960s, local fishermen and fishing clubs recognized that placing “artificial” structure in nearshore areas could simulate natural hard bottom habitat and provide increased opportunities for recreational anglers. Although successful, the early days of reef building were more like the wild west than a scientific pursuit, with neither planning oversight from state agencies nor a grasp on the best environmental and scientific practices.
In 1984, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife officially began its Artificial Reef Program with permitting through the United States Army Corp of Engineers to develop an artificial reef system with oversight and environmental standards. Fish and Wildlife began with four reef locations: Sea Girt Reef off Monmouth County, Garden State North and Garden State South reefs off Long Beach Island in Ocean County and Atlantic City Reef off Atlantic County. Within the first decade, the reef matrix increased to include a total of 14 permitted reef sites ranging from Sandy Hook to Cape May. Another reef was added in 2005 and two more in 2017, bringing the total to 17 reef sites managed by Fish and Wildlife. Four of these are inside the 3-mile state waters territory, while the remaining 13 sites are in federal waters beyond three miles.
Fooling Mother Nature
Artificial reefs provide habitat through successional development, providing attachment surfaces for native species of marine plant and animal life that depend upon such structure. Prey species of fish and crustaceans that take residence on these reefs attract predatory fish species using the reefs as a place to feed, reproduce, find shelter and live. Simply put, big fish eat little fish. Artificial reefs provide the building blocks for that process.
When fish congregate in focused areas, anglers have an enhanced opportunity to harvest the resource. New Jersey reefs provide angling opportunities ranging between 1 mile from the shoreline to 24 miles offshore in depths from 40 feet to 160 feet. Additionally, the New Jersey Artificial Reef Program offers boundless opportunities for scuba divers, providing over 180 sunken ships or barges to explore within the reef system.
Studies conducted by Fish and Wildlife’s Bureau of Marine Fisheries over the past 35 years have determined that over 150 species of fish and other marine life utilize the New Jersey reef sites. The benefited species are endemic to New Jersey waters but are limited in extent and abundance by the lack of hard substrate. The artificial reef system supports recreational fisheries for several important species, contributing to the $2.5 billion economic benefit of New Jersey’s fisheries industry.
Historically, artificial reefs have been constructed out of a wide range of materials, but recently they have been limited to three general material types: steel, rock and concrete. Steel is generally acquired in the form of ex-fishing vessels, barges, tugboats, army tanks, and subway cars that are no longer considered suitable for their intended service. Rock is often provided through many river and port deepening projects and consists of the largest material encountered during the project period—preferably larger than a basketball and frequently bigger than a car. Concrete typically originates from bridge decommissioning projects, old piers and pilings plus road culverts or other pre-cast materials.
Before any material is deployed, its suitability is evaluated. Those determined fit for deployment are cleaned and prepared using best environmental practices. For steel and metal ships or barges, cleaning often includes removing machinery, fuel, oil and electrical components from vessels. Once cleaned, a bare steel hull and superstructure are ready to sink in the ocean. These artificial reef materials have a typical lifespan on the ocean floor of 75 to 110 years depending on the metal’s quality and thickness at the time of deployment.
Concrete material goes through a similar process and must be prepared in accordance with the New Jersey Artificial Reef Management Plan which disallows any floatable material including wood or plastic waste. Concrete is a desirable material as it withstands the marine environment, often lasting hundreds of years while gaining strength over time. Deployed rock undergoes the same inspection process, ensuring it is free of debris including most fine sediment resulting from the dredging process. The underlying goal of material selection is to identify the largest material available for the selected site that provides large interstitial space for habitation by a variety of marine organisms.
Donations are the Key
New Jersey’s reef program has no budget for material acquisition and deployment. The program relies entirely on donations from private industry in the way of direct material donations and from non-profit organizations that have environmental enhancement goals such as the Ann E. Clark’s “sportfishingfund.org” and a myriad of private fishing clubs along the coast.
Vessels measuring 90 feet in length typically cost an average of $80,000 which includes acquisition, preparation and removal of contaminants plus the final towing and deployment onto the reef site. Concrete loads weighing 3,000 tons cost an average of $110,000, whereas rock is usually donated by the dredging companies.
Special Management Zone Protections
Currently the reef program has made over 4,400 deployments with considerable investment from the recreational fishing community. In 2017, through a regulation passed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, New Jersey received Special Management Zone status for all federal waters reefs, with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection applying the same rules to the state waters reefs. While fishing is still permitted, this bans all fixed gear from being set and fished on the seventeen New Jersey permitted reef sites. Fish and Wildlife requested Special Management Zone designation to allow reef use to be focused on the recreational harvest of fish while still allowing the sites to be used as essential fish habitat.
Primary Objectives of the New Jersey Artificial Reef Program
- Continue to construct hard-substrate reef habitat for marine fish and invertebrates;
- Provide spawning, nursery, refuge and feeding areas for marine life;
- Create fishing grounds for hook-and-line anglers;
- Provide underwater structures for scuba divers;
- Provide economic benefits to recreational fishing and diving industries.
Where Are We Now?
Our two newest reefs — Delaware Bay Reef and Manasquan Inlet Reef — are both under construction currently but open to recreational diving and fishing. To date, the Manasquan Inlet Reef has received 3,000 tons of precast concrete material plus an 85-foot ex-fishing vessel, with plans to deploy additional material soon. The Delaware Bay Reef, New Jersey’s first estuarine reef site, has received 2,000 tons of dredge rock with plans to continue low profile deployments as opportunity allows.
Fish and Wildlife believes that the actual benefits of the Artificial Reef Program transcend these objectives, ranging well beyond the local New Jersey system by providing benefit to species in the greater Mid-Atlantic Bight region that utilize the coastal waters of New Jersey as part of their geographical range. Quality, structured habitat as a network or matrix benefits the entire region by adding biomass and enhancing overall population health.
The intent of the reef program is not to change our marine environment but to enhance a small portion of our sea floor to benefit marine species and the stakeholders of New Jersey. For those interested in becoming an active sponsor of the New Jersey Artificial Reef Program, contact the Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Reef Coordinator at (609) 748-2020.