Sinking the MV Twin Capes: DNREC to spend $800,000 to turn ex-bay ferry into artificial reef

LEWES — DNREC is in the process of purchasing the Delaware River and Bay Authority’s (DRBA) ferry vessel, MV Twin Capes, for the purposes of adding the vessel to the growing “Del-Jersey-Land” artificial reef. DNREC’s contractor, Coleen Marine of Virginia Beach, Va., paid the DRBA $200,000 earlier in July to take possession of the MV Twin Capes and start preparations for DNREC’s projected sinking of the ferry in 2018 onto the artificial reef 26 miles off the Delaware and New Jersey coast. However, the total price tag for the project will likely end up near $800,000, according to DNREC’s reef program coordinator Jeff Tinsman.

“The purchase price, cleaning and preparation will likely cost in the neighborhood of $800,000,” he said. “Our marine contractor actually buys the vessel and then we pay them at the end of the process and accept title to the vessel once it’s sunk on our reefs. That allows us to avoid liability for the vessel during the preparation period.”

Preparation, which will include scrubbing the whole craft and removing anything toxic and all doors and windows, will likely take until early next summer Mr. Tinsman said.

The Delaware River and Bay Authority, a bi-state government agency of New Jersey and Delaware established by interstate compact in 1962, bought the ferry over 40 years ago to ferry passengers and vehicles across the bay. However, it was decommissioned from duty about 5 years ago because it cost too much to run, officials said. The DRBA noted that current ridership levels at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry are adequately served with the three vessels in their ferry fleet. The DRBA claims to have carried more than 45 million passengers since its inception. In 2016, the ferry service, which connects Cape May and Lewes transported approximately 275,000 vehicles and nearly 1 million passengers.

Maintenance and operating cost savings related to the mothballing of the MV Twin Capes was approximately $1.1 million, DRBA officials claim. The ferry required 17 crew members and used 126 gallons of fuel per hour (nearly 50 percent more crew and about 25 percent in additional fuel by comparison to the other ferries).
They also noted that approximately $230,000 worth of equipment, electronics and engine components has been or will be removed from the vessel for resale including propellers, rescue boats, benches, chairs, bow thruster, light fixtures, generators and pumps.

The tugboat, Justin, maneuvers the MV Twin Capes out of her berthing slip at the Cape May Ferry terminal. The ferry, formerly owned by Delaware River and Bay Authority, was retrieved on July 20 an delivered to Norfolk, Virgina where DNREC’s contractor, Coleen Marine, will prepare it to be sunk on Delaware’s artificial reef. (Submitted photo)

According to officials, the DRBA also actively sought a buyer for the ferry for more than five years before the ferry’s future was decided on as an artificial reef.

“We’re pleased to be able to partner with DNREC on this worthwhile environmental project,” Heath Gehrke, Director of Ferry Operations, said in a release. “During the sale process, it was apparent that the market was thin for such a specialized vessel. For us, it made sense to partner with DNREC on this artificial reef project to benefit the divers and sport fishermen of Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland.”

The 320-foot-long vessel had been moored at the Cape May Ferry terminal, but has now been moved to Norfolk, Virginia for processing. It had a carrying capacity of 895 people and 100 vehicles.

The Ferry is open year-round and has carried more than 45 million passengers since its inception on July 1, 1964, according to officials. In 2016, the ferry service, which connects Cape May and Lewes transported approximately 275,000 vehicles and nearly 1 million passengers.

Who’s paying for the project?

Mr. Tinsman claims that the “general taxpayer” in Delaware won’t be footing the bill for the costly addition to the artificial reef though.

“We use sport fish restoration funds for the artificial reef project which are from an 11 percent tax excise tax on fishing and boating equipment,” he said. “It’s a requirement that every three of those dollars be matched by one non-federal dollar.”

He notes that DNREC’s matching contribution to the 14 active artificial reefs under its control comes in the form of private donations. Namely from concrete companies donating their surplus molds — like culverts, manholes and junction boxes — that failed inspection for one reason or another.

“Concrete products are the most common thing we’ve used for artificial reef in terms of tonnage,” he said. “The rejects are a solid waste issue for concrete manufacturers so they donate that material to us because that helps us to match the federal funding.”

Another notable donation to the reef was 1,329 New York City subway cars in the 2000s, Mr. Tinsman said. However, most of the vessels sunk on the reef over the years have been purchased.

What’s the Benefit?

Despite the project’s cost, DNREC claims that continuing to cultivate artificial reef in the bay and off state’s Atlantic Coast will provide marine habitat and recreational opportunities for boaters, anglers and divers.

DNREC Secretary Shawn M. Garvin said the Twin Capes would be reefed on the Del- Jersey-Land offshore reef site so that numerous fish species “can take advantage of the rich and spacious habitat it will provide. The Twin Capes is the one of the finest reefing candidates DNREC has ever seen, and as an artificial reef, it will be unparalleled as fish habitat and a spectacular dive for exploration. Adding the Twin Capes to Delaware’s artificial reef system is another investment in Delaware’s conservation economy by DNREC that also brings a trove of environmental benefits.”

Mr. Tinsman said that because much of Delaware Bay’s and the state Atlantic coast has little to no “structure” on its bottom, artificial reef creates ecosystems roughly “400 times richer” than the natural sea floor.

“The structure of this ferry especially will attract a lot of fish,” he said. “Artificial reefs support fish populations by providing a hard substrate for the attachment of a rich invertebrate community, dominated by blue mussels and several dozen other species of worms, crabs and shrimp. Black sea bass and Tautog, which are some of the best fish to eat out there, collect around structures because they aren’t great swimmers and they look for shelter from predators, storms and tidal currents.”

Along with environmental support, comes recreational benefits too, DNREC officials claim. Mr. Tinsman said a robust fleet of charter boat services have sprung up specifically in Lewes and the Indian River inlet to serve people interested in fishing on the artificial reefs.

“We do an aerial survey every year of all out reef sites to assess fishing efforts and they are thriving,” he said. “Folks with boats big enough to get to them and charter boats all flock to these areas because the fishing is so good.”

Scuba diving, another activity ordinarily spurred by underwater attractions, much less popular. Tinsman says that it is available though.

“Some of the charter boats are running out fishermen and scuba divers,” he added. “But because of water clarity, south of South Carolina is really where most of the reef scuba diving is taking place. Probably about 80 percent of our users are fishing at the artificial reef. We have lots of interesting sites, but it’s hard to predict how much visibility you will get because of the suspended sediments coming out of the Delaware Bay. On good days you can have 80 feet of visibility, on others you’re lucky if you get 3 to 5 feet.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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