Former WW II ship becomes part of state’s artificial reef system

The Reedville as it sank about 12:15 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 13 on Reef Site No. 11 (the Redbird Reef). (DNREC photo)

INDIAN RIVER — Scuba divers relish the opportunity to search for sunken treasures. The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control is happy to give them some unique places to explore on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay, where its series of artificial reefs are creating fish habitats.

The Reedville, a 180-foot-long former U.S. Navy and later Army fast-supply freighter, became the latest ship to be sunk by DNREC to become a part of Delaware’s artificial reef system as it made the journey to the bottom of the ocean on Thursday afternoon.

The Reedville, originally a World War II and Korean Conflict-era coastal freighter and supply ship before it was converted to a commercial fishing vessel after military decommissioning, found a new life starting at 12:18 p.m. on Thursday as a fish habitat on the ocean floor through DNREC’s artificial reef program.

The sinking of the Reedville was the reef program’s first deployment of a vessel since a retired Chesapeake Bay cruise ship was sunk late last year onto Reef Site No. 11. Because of the ship’s profile featuring a cavernous hold and 38-foot keel to top of stack, the Reedville is expected to be a boon to two fisheries prominent in Delaware inshore waters, black sea bass and tautog.

“We continue to enhance the angling and recreational diving experience in Delaware by expanding our reef system, which includes 14 separate reef sites in the Delaware Bay and along the Atlantic Coast,” said DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin. “When we sank Twin Capes (Cape May-Lewes ferry) two years ago as a centerpiece of the system, it was unmatched as an artificial reef for both providing fish habitat and a spectacular dive with its five decks for underwater exploration.

“Now with the Reedville, we’ve got four reefed vessels of the same class and we are putting it in a place that will be accessible, attract the most fish and where divers will want to explore, too.”

The Reedville’s sinking was carried out by Norfolk, Virginia-based marine contractor Coleen Marine, which has handled numerous ship and vessel reef deployments for the DNREC program, after receiving approvals from the EPA for environmental cleanliness and from the U.S. Coast Guard.

DNREC’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, which oversees the reef program, paid $175,000 in federal Sport Fish Restoration funds to buy Reedville from Coleen Marine after the ship settled onto the Redbird Reef.

Reedville joins the longest ship ever reefed on the East Coast, the 585-foot destroyer ex-USS Arthur W. Radford, sunk by DNREC in 2011; the former Lewes-to-Cape May ferry M/V Twin Capes, reefed in 2018; and more than 1,350 retired New York City subway cars that have helped comprise the reef system over the last two decades, including 997 cars on the site where Reedville was sunk Thursday.

Jeff Tinsman, an environmental scientist who leads DNREC’s artificial reef program, calls the sunken subway cars “luxury condominiums for fish.”

Reef Site No. 11 is also known as the Redbird Reef after the “redbird” No. 7 Flushing Line subway cars that provide predominant structure and fish habitat over the reef’s 1.3 square miles of ocean floor located 16 miles off the Delaware coast. To build the Redbird Reef, 619 of the obsolete subway cars were sunk, each of them 51-feet-long by nine-feet-wide, making a substantial bottom structure for an artificial reef.

The Redbird Reef, besides being a fish habitat created by the subway cars, includes a 215-foot-long Chesapeake Bay cruise ship, 86 U.S. Army tanks, eight tugboats, a fishing trawler, two barges and now, Reedville.

DNREC’s development of the artificial reef sites began in 1995 and has aggressively continued into the present with new reef structure added as quickly as the program can get its hands on some suitable material. That includes anything old and afloat that will sink after it’s been cleaned up environmentally for reefing, and anything cleanly discarded that can be resurrected as reef material once it goes down to the ocean floor.

Durable, stable, non-toxic reef materials can develop an invertebrate community which is hundreds of times richer than adjacent bottom, providing food and physical protection for reef fish such as tautog, seabass, scup, spadefish and triggerfish. In addition, gamefish such as bluefish, striped bass and weakfish are attracted to baitfish, which congregate around reef structure.

Recycled materials have supported reef development efforts to date. Donated concrete culvert pipe and other concrete products are the primary material used at the eight Delaware Bay sites. Ballasted tire units have been deployed at the three ocean sites. The tugboat “Golden Eagle” has been sunk in the lower bay and the tug “Margaret” was the latest vessel of her kind to join the artificial reef when sunk in 2006.

To date, more than 89,000 tons of concrete products, 9,000 tons of ballasted tire units and 86 decommissioned military vehicles have been utilized by the Delaware reef program. Retired vessels have become an important part of the Reef Program in recent years with vessels from 40- to 565-feet sunk on eight of the reef sites.

Ms. Lavoie said the Delaware Reef Program is one part of a comprehensive fisheries management effort and is designed to enhance fisheries habitat, benefit structure-oriented fish and provide fishing opportunities for anglers. Over the long haul, artificial reefs are seen as a salvation for depleted or endangered fisheries.

“The artificial reef is a big draw for both angers and underwater divers,” said Ms. Lavoie. “Fish swim in and out of these structures, creating an interesting place to dive and great fishing spot. We know that a lot of the head boats and charter boats that take people out for fishing trips will go directly to our reefs to fish.”