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Original Issue


Because sea creatures love debris, some of today's hot fishing spots resemble a neighborhood car dump

In 1953 James Cahill, an ex-Navy frogman, applied for a Massachusetts lobstering license. To the consternation of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, instead of using pots as New Englanders and their grandfathers and their grandfathers" grandfathers traditionally had, Cahill dived for his lobsters. Since he had spent much of his last Navy hitch detonating underwater mines off Korea and blowing up icebergs off Greenland, Cahill was accustomed to the misery of cold water. On his lobster forays he sometimes used a crude diving suit that was supposed to keep him dry but seldom did. Most often he simply wore long underwear, which was enough to prevent him from turning totally blue on a one-hour dive in 45° water.

He took lobsters from the nooks in natural rock but got a far better haul out of several dozen auto tires that he found scattered on the sea floor outside Salem Harbor. During spring and early summer, when lobsters were migrating shoreward to molt, he usually got one from every tire. Whenever he cleaned out the tires, within three days other lobsters would move in. Since the tires were obviously being used by transient lobsters, Cahill started his own chain of lobster motels, putting a few tires here and there near rock outcroppings on the bottom leading from the open ocean to Salem Harbor. After he had 100 tires planted at depths from 15 to 100 feet, he never harvested fewer than 20 lobsters a day and often brought back more than 60.

It was a profitable enterprise, but short-lived—for which Cahill can largely blame himself. The year before he began lobstering he founded New England Divers Company, which is now the largest outlet for underwater gear in the U.S. Within four years after he first hunted lobsters in his long Johns, he was supplying scuba enthusiasts with newfangled foam suits that made New England waters almost tolerable. Some of the divers in the growing legion that he outfitted put down their own tires to attract lobsters. Too many divers, alas, simply raided Cahill's original motel chain.

In 1959 a 40-year-old Florida angler named Sid Clements yearned for a good fishing hole in Biscayne Bay, the body of water that for 40 years has been dredged and filled and much abused by the sister cities of Miami and Miami Beach. At the time, Clements owned a 16-foot outboard that he could have trailered easily to better grounds in the Florida Keys, but he also had a 5-year-old son prone to seasickness. He decided to build his own fishing reef in snug waters that his son could enjoy.

Clements had occasionally fished on the seaward edge of the bay in Norris Cut where an early entrepreneur had gouged a 20-foot bottom to convert a spoil bank into a stable island. By day he had usually caught nothing there. After dark and in the first light he often caught pan-sized grunts and snappers. Clements chose the spot for his reef, reasoning that any bottom that would attract nocturnal feeders would probably support more fish if habitat were provided. Each time, before launching their boat to fish in Norris Cut, Clements and his son Dean would scrounge the shoreline for rocks, taking along any they could lift from coconut size on up. After dumping the rocks on their site, they would fish. After fishing they usually made three trips to Lummus Island, another spoil bank. On Lummus they would collect more rock and any jetsam that seemed durable enough for a reef-concrete rubble, pipes, parts of a stove, a car door, a fender, a soggy steamer trunk. In three years they dumped more than 50 tons of rock and rubble on their secret reef.

In the first year after starting the reef they caught little worth keeping. In another year they were getting pan-sized snappers and were putting back four-and five-inch groupers. In the third year they were taking snappers over a pound, and by the fourth year groupers over two pounds. When they retrieved their lines they often had bits of sponge and soft coral fouled on their hooks—proof that the reef was alive. By the end of the fifth year they were taking groupers up to eight pounds and putting back any weighing less than two. Along with grunts and snappers they took two-pound blue runners, occasional bonefish and barracuda, and Spanish mackerel in season. By the eighth year Dean Clements had outgrown his seasickness, so they forgot their homemade reef. As Sid Clements now sums up the father-and-son venture, "We spent three years at hard labor. Then we rested on our oars and collected as much profit as we needed."

In the late '50s Bob and Bill Meistrell, co-owners of Dive n' Surf Inc., an aquatics shop in Redondo Beach, Calif., found a spiny lobster in the toilet bowl of a sunken barge. Shortly thereafter a customer stopped by their place with several reject toilet bowls that his father planned to use as flowerpots. The Meistrell brothers straightway went to the same manufacturer, who let them have 25 reject bowls and 25 water closets on the promise that they would be used for a reef and not sold ashore on the secondhand market. Within a year the little toilet-bowl and water-closet reef they put down on the edge of the submarine canyon off Redondo Beach had four dozen lobsters in residence. Inspired by this, the Meistrell brothers got more water closets (they chose water closets exclusively the second time around because they were roomy enough for two lobsters each). Farther along the edge of the Redondo Canyon, in 100 feet of water, they laid down 200 water closets, arranging them in a circle of one-and two-story condominiums reminiscent of the Bauhaus architecture of the late Walter Gropius. Within a year they had about 300 lobsters living in the water closets. About once a month they harvested 10 lobsters apiece, apparently without affecting the standing population. The Meistrells recognized that their lobster condominiums—like Jim Cahill's motel chain of tires—could not stand unlimited fishing pressure. To keep other divers from finding the site, they always anchored at a distance and made their final approach underwater.

Since the water closets were ceramic—as durable as any pottery of ancient man—they should still be producing lobsters. Possibly they still are but, alackaday, not for the Meistrell brothers. Despite their efforts to keep it secret, rival divers—real crumb bums—found their site and stole the water closets—for use, no doubt, somewhere else on the bottom. Short of a cataclysmic earthquake there is no natural violence that could scatter such heavy objects any distance at a depth of 100 feet. The Meistrells made sweeping searches of the area but could not find a single water closet.

Jim Cahill, the Massachusetts lobster-man, and Sid Clements, the Miami reef builder, and the Meistrell brothers of Redondo Beach all deserve an A-plus for effort and a round of applause for their ingenuity, but none of them can honestly be rated as a pioneer. They were all merely capitalizing in a novel way on a long-accepted and neglected truth: the creatures of the sea love our junk.

There are devout people who may be rankled by the idea; nonetheless, it is a fact that God in His infinite wisdom did not provide as well as He might have for the creatures of the ocean shallows. Along continental shores inside the 20-fathom line there are miles and miles of sandy desolation and terrigenous muck. In such barrens certain arthropods and sluggish fish manage a living, and certain species of infauna can suck enough out of the water column to get by. But no barnacle in its right mind would try to make a go of it in such a place; nor would the average mussel. In the complicated food chains of the sea there are species of amphipods and isopods and polychaete worms and a host of other living trinkets that, like barnacles, need something to cling to. In the backwaters of Long Island Sound, for example, there are more small tasty crabs in the vertical links of a mooring chain than in 100 square yards of oozy bottom surrounding it. On continental shelves the world around "The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean" touted by Poet Thomas Gray are few and far between. For anxious bait-fish the average natural cave off the U.S. East Coast offers less shelter than the chain locker in the gloomy bowels of a freighter that was zapped by a U-boat in World War II. Today fish find happiness in the ovens of discarded stoves and the rotting coachwork of abandoned cars. Some fish seek out such objects for shelter and as a place to graze. Some congregate because they need solid matter on which to lay eggs. Others use man-made items as they do the discontinuities of natural rock, simply for orientation. Quite beyond these logical reasons, scientists now realize that some fish are "thigmotropic"—a fancy way of saying that they often hang around alien objects just for the hell of it.

The odd penchants and queer ways of fish exceed the ken of man. Three miles off Murrells Inlet, S.C. in 35 feet of water there is a successful artificial reef made up of a 100-foot barge, a 55-foot LCM, two lesser craft and 36,000 auto tires. For the past three years Biologist Richard Stone, the Federal Government's foremost authority on sunken junk, has been studying the Murrells Inlet reef. On a dive in the early summer two years ago Stone found a school of three-pound bluefish in the hold of the LCM on the reef. Were the bluefish seeking shelter or were they merely thigmotroping in the LCM for no good reason? Stone does not know. Bluefish are bold and brash raiders. They may often scout a wreck, but holing up inside one is not their style. Still, there they were. When Stone entered the LCM the bluefish cleared out. On every dive he made that summer the bluefish left when he appeared and returned when he left. On every dive, be it a month or only a day later, he found the bluefish back inside the LCM.

On the same reef Stone encountered black sea bass that were thigmotropic in strange ways: they frequently singled him out as a thigmo to trope upon. On more than a dozen occasions the bass swam up and bit his ears. On 20 artificial reefs from Long Island south to Jacksonville, Fla., Stone has met the same species of bass, but only those at Murrells Inlet have ever chewed on his ears. Does this mean that his earlobes pick up some kind of epifauna at Murrells Inlet that appeals to bass? Is it possible that the Murrells Inlet bass are off their rockers? Stone does not know and, being a disciplined scientist, he is reluctant to guess.

The affinity fish have for tiny parcels of junk is aptly pointed up in work done by Stone and co-workers on five mini-reefs they put down on barren bottom in 30 feet of water off Murrells Inlet. Each little reef consisted of only 50 auto tires occupying an area 10 by 15 feet. The five reefs were strung out in a line, the distances between ranging from 50 to 300 feet. Two years ago Stone and his team tagged 68 sea bass on the mini-reefs. Of 20 later sighted, 11 were still on the reef where they were tagged. Three traveled 300 feet; two moved 150 feet. Four trapped on one reef and released on another 150 feet away returned to their home reef. In June last year the research team tagged 19 sea bass on experimental mini-reef No. 3—roughly half the population. At the same time they rid mini-reef No. 4 of its sea bass by trapping and eating them. Although mini-reef No. 4 had vacancies galore, so to speak, none of the fish on reef No. 3 moved 150 feet to fill the void. By September, however, two dozen tiny sea bass—obviously spawn of the year—had moved in from the open sea to occupy the depauperate mini-reef.

On a barren 50-foot bottom in Paradise Cove at the north end of Santa Monica Bay in May of 1958 the California Department of Fish and Game built a small reef of 20 auto bodies. Before the cars were sunk, divers swimming a 100-meter transect at the site spotted only one flatfish, two yellow crabs and six whelk. Within hours after the cars were in place small perch and sargo showed up, soon followed by kelp bass, halibut, sheepshead and opaleye. On 29 dives in the next 2½ years biologists counted an average of 4,200 fish of 49 species—baitfish and also food fish such as kelp bass and sheepshead. By the end of the second year they never found fewer than 1,000 fish around the cars, and on one occasion saw more than 24,000.

Fourteen years ago Dr. John Randall, a restless ichthyologist, built a reef of 800 standard concrete blocks on a grassy bottom in Lesser Lameshur Bay in the Virgin Islands. Within three weeks 24 species had moved in, and some omnivorous fish were already grazing on filamentous algae coating the blocks. Two years and four months later Randall encircled the 60 square yards of artificial reef with nets and poisoned the water, collecting 2,754 fish of 55 species. Although its encrusting growth was far from climax, Randall's little concrete reef produced 3.2 pounds of fish per square yard, an unseemly high yield for tropical waters. Two sections of natural reef offering better shelter, when netted off and poisoned, produced less than a tenth as much. Randall reckons that although his reef afforded less shelter, it yielded far more because it was situated in turtle and manatee grass where fish could forage.

At more than 50 sites along the U.S. East and Gulf Coasts hundreds of unwanted ships-freighters and ore carriers; tugboats, ferryboats and dandy yachts; barges and dredges: fish trawlers and shrimpers; landing craft, patrol boats and naval ships of the line—have been sunk to provide habitats for fish. On more than 230 sites on the East Coast and in California a wild variety of lesser junk has been put down: autos, buses and trolley cars; stoves, refrigerators, washers and dryers; bricks, sewer pipes, culverts, girders, building blocks and natural rock; oyster and clam shells; beer cases, oil drums, septic tanks and old tires.

From the fishes' point of view, almost anything will do. One hundred and forty years ago, by merely putting down weighted wood platforms with upright stakes, fishermen attracted sheepshead in the estuarine waters of South Carolina. Considering such precedents and the proven affinity of fish for almost any junk, biologists like Stone and Randall would seem to be simply belaboring the obvious in their studies of artificial reefs. This might be a fair charge if fish per se were the consideration or if artificial reefs were to be fished selectively. The prime purpose of the artificial reefs built to date has been to improve recreation for small-boat fishermen in the declining waters of coastal states. The answer biologists seek is not what kinds of junk fish will accept but what kinds are durable enough and cheap enough to put down in sufficient quantity to sustain heavy fishing pressure. In California, a state that frankly admits the purpose of its artificial reefs is to help keep a crowded human population from going off its nut, biologists built three multicomponent reefs, each consisting of one trolley car, 14 auto bodies, 333 tons of quarry rock and 44 specially made concrete "fish houses." The cubic volume of the four different materials used on each multireef was virtually equal, and at each location the materials were put down far enough apart to minimize the movement of demersal fish from one to the other. The trolley cars proved the least productive: they attracted fewer fish and proved too good a home for boring worms that literally ate them away. The car bodies attracted more fish and lasted longer than the wood trolleys, but since their life expectancy in the corrosive chemistry of the sea is six years at most, they, too, were considered inferior material. The specially made fish houses proved to be the best fish attractors, but not good enough considering the high cost of fabricating them. When cost was weighed against yield, the quarry rock proved best. As a consequence, on the two-mile super reef it now plans for Santa Monica Bay, the California Department of Fish and Game will use rock and rubble from construction projects.

In 1966, when environmentalists were really starting to sweat about the sorry state of our air and water, Lady Bird Johnson spoke up about the esthetic decline across the land. She deplored specifically the unsightly piles of old cars and used tires that littered the countryside. Today the used-car problem has been partly solved by the growing demand for scrap metal, but used tires are still a blight on the land, a rubber monkey on our back. There are now 200 million old tires coming off rims every year, and there is no good way to get rid of them ashore. About 10% can be retreaded or reprocessed economically. The rest lie about in the weeds and in urban lots, harboring rats and collecting water for mosquitos. Old tires cannot be burned at city dumps because they stink up the air too much. If they are buried in landfill, they work their way to the surface.

With Lady Bird's remarks as impetus—and a notable assist from Senator Clifford Case of New Jersey—Dr. Lionel Walford of the Sandy Hook Marine Laboratory and his assistant, John Clark, got a $100,000 appropriation to put land wastes to use underwater. At the time Biologist Richard Stone was working at the Sandy Hook lab as an aerial observer recording ocean surface temperatures with infrared equipment. When the reef-building funds came through. Stone was, in a manner of speaking, kicked downstairs to head up the federal junk-in-the-sea program. He has been, in effect, selling used tires to state and local governments and conscientious citizens ever since.

In the past five years nearly three-quarters of a million tires have been used on reef sites off the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. More than two hundred thousand of them have been put down as part of a single reef off Broward County, Fla. Although most of the junk of the Broward reef has been down less than two years, it is already yielding for private boat owners and charter skippers. The Broward reef is a heartening example of how two problems can be solved by one answer when everyone concerned gets on the ball.

As a result of a booming population and fresh water released from flood control canals for more than 10 years, the ocean off Broward County has been in a bad way. In the same period used tires have been piling up—currently at a rate of 400,000 a year. The Broward artificial reef was started nearly five years ago by local fishermen and concerned citizens banded together as Broward Artificial Reef Incorporated, which is now known acronymically as BARINC. The first bulk material BARINC put down four years ago on a 75-foot bottom a mile and a half out were ero-jacks, large concrete devices designed to halt shore erosion and resembling the jacks used in the child's game. The ero-jacks proved to be good habitat, but at $11 apiece on the bottom, too expensive. Two years ago, when Dick Stone passed that way extolling used tires, BARINC switched over. If every private and public agency involved had charged fairly for its contribution, each of the first 70,000 tires on the BARINC reef would have cost more than a dollar on the bottom. But the county's Department of Parks and Beaches provided three" men at salary. The Port Everglades Authority, a quasi-autonomous agency in the county, provided land where tires could be piled and loaded on barges. The local mosquito-control men sprayed the tires for free. The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company developed, at no charge, special machinery that would punch holes in the tires and compact a dozen into a heavy bundle three feet high. Two scuba diving clubs put in more than 300 hours below, and rehabilitated drug users at a local institution worked on the tires above water at no pay. Because so many volunteered so much, BARINC paid less than 20¢ for each tire on the bottom.

Impressed by the results, Broward County took over the project last year, putting aside $70,000 to really get it going. Soon no tires will be allowed on the county dumps. A tire dealer has the option of letting them pile up on his own premises or taking them to the BARINC compacting site, where he is charged for each he leaves there. The county anticipates that if reef building does not become self-supporting, the modest fee will at least cover most of the cost.

On the continental shelf, from Montauk Point, N.Y. south to Key West and around the Gulf to the Mexican border, there is an area about the size of Texas. Half of the shelf lies inside the 20-fathom line at depths practical for rod-and-reel fishing. Only a tenth of the area has natural substrate suitable for demersal fish. A good bit of the barrens are used by draggers and trawlers, but allowing for all commercial interests, there remain vast areas for reef development. A good bit of it, although close to land, is too far from inlets and thus out of reach of small-boat anglers. It is Biologist Stone's hope that in time reefs will also be built on inaccessible grounds so they will not be fished but will serve, as game preserves do on land, to maintain and bolster the standing population. As he sees it, the junk that pays off for us today can also be used to build a better future.