February 28, 2007

Marine Life Gets Spiffy New Home: Pyramids of Artificial Reef Placed on Sea Floor

By Mike Keller

FEDERAL WATERS SOUTH OF HORN ISLAND -- Sixty concrete-and-limestone pyramids were set on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday to replace artificial reefs damaged or destroyed by Katrina.

Marine-resources managers hope reef fish will call the new structures home. A barge sank the pyramids in three designated fish habitats 10 miles south of Horn Island.

"We lost 80 to 90 percent of artificial-reef habitat during the hurricane," said Department of Marine Resources program manager Kerwin Cuevas. "Snapper, gag grouper and a whole host of other species important to commercial and recreational fishing use these areas for shelter, foraging and breeding."

The pyramids are being deployed in Mississippi waters for the first time, instead of rubble piles or scuttled vessels. Walters Marine, an Alabama company, built and delivered the eight-foot-high structures. DMR plans to drop a 240 pyramids in the next few weeks. When it is done, the project will have refurbished 10 to 20 acres of fish habitat.

Cuevas said the money for the project- $240,000- is coming from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration emergency grant.

"These reefs are important economically," Cuevas said. "They bring $78.4 million into the Mississippi economy annually."

Research has shown how much marine animals, from invertebrates up to large carnivores such as sharks, gravitate to an artificial reef compared with the barren bottoms surrounding them. One New Jersey study found artificial reefs could provide up to 760 times the mass of living organisms than comparable sandy sea bottoms.

Tuesday morning the barge Maranatha, which means "our Lord is come," moved to a spot above fish haven 1. The area is one of three permitted artificial-reef sites where the pyramids will be deployed.

A deck worker attached a 67-foot boom crane's cable to one of the 3.5-ton pyramids. The artificial reef was swung over the side of the ship and lowered to the mud-and-sand bottom some 60 feet below.

The barge sat higher and higher in the water as it delivered its load throughout the morning.

Resources managers looking on from their own boat near the barge have high hopes for the new material they are deploying.

"We are going to do some comparative studies between this new material and what we traditionally use," Cuevas said. "Hopefully when we're through, other reef managers can learn from what we did here."

For map and more photos of reef pyramids, go to sunherald.com