Before reading on, you may want to check out this new video of reef building in action, shot on the Morning Star this February:

Imagine: despite the best bottom paint money can buy, if you leave a boat overboard long enough it's hull will become loaded with all manner of growth – none of which is easy to scrape off. In that growth are small hiding places and food. The marine food web has begun.

reef foundation volunteers at work
Reef building volunteers shove block over the side to add to the Wolf & Sons reef this past November.

Habitat just hasn't been thought out. It could make one crazy to see such fantastic benefit at sea escape NOAA's notice. So far as ‘science' can tell, there's no benefit at all from marine reef-building on a computer screen. Perhaps one day soon the evidence will be overwhelming, but meanwhile, an argument against reef-building can be countered thusly: "So, we have too much coral?"

Yeah, it's pretty simple. Yet if we can roll some boulders off a barge this spring, all the life that grows there for the next couple thousand years will have been directly related to a volunteer/donation-driven organization, the Ocean City Reef Foundation (OCRF). A reef project I've long dreamed of, we will place tons of boulder on the bottom where there was once natural reef. We have funding in place to build and to study, with the help of the Nature Conservancy. The more boulder we can buy, the more bottom we can build. It's going to be a sweet reef. One that will last far into the future. I see reef for thousands of years, providing no super-hurricane moves a sandbar atop it.

No one's going to scrape that growth.

We did exactly that, removed the habitat and destroyed it beginning in the 1950s, then all through the 1960s and into the early 1980s, with stern-towed fishing gear. The habitat suffered. For the most part, any habitat that could be damaged or lost owing to dredging and trawling was destroyed by 1980.

Fish do not fall from the sky. They are a product of habitat. Would that NOAA might begin to consider the Mid-Atlantic seafloor's remaining hard bottoms and examine their diminishment over time, from the period immediately after WWII especially. It remains true that there were more sea bass caught and sold by the pound from 1950 to 1961 than in all the years since combined. That's a lot of fish. A huge difference. Delve into that – there's where "Fisheries Restoration" will stem from. Choking off commerce through ever-tightening catch restriction, by using data no one believes to create an aura of "overfishing" that's simply not true, could fairly be called the opposite of restoration.

Shall we settle for whatever population can be mustered via regulations’ diminished catch? Or ought we look to the facts of fisheries production to discover how in the world sea bass were once so much more prolific? I tell all who will read: reef restoration makes fisheries restorations simpler.

I absolutely believe rebuilding this habitat, these reefs, is far more important now to fisheries restorations than further regulation is. NOAA, so far as I can tell, hasn't yet troubled themselves with marine habitat in the Mid-Atlantic. There's no urgency to discover what remains of our natural reef ecology, and certainly no concern over whether restoring lost reef (which they seem to have no idea was lost) would bolster fish populations simply by providing new places for fish to feed, spawn, and hide from predators. The mini-ecosystem that grows on its own wherever a hard substrate is available will provide food and spawning habitat for tog, sea bass, and flounder, among others.

- By Capt. Monty Hawkins, who runs the Morning Star and is a well-respected authority on reefs and bottom fishing off the DelMarVa Peninsula. Capt. Hawkins is a driving force behind the Ocean City Reef Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization which has been building and enhancing reefs off the coast since 1997. Visit the OC Reef Foundation, for more information.

What About the Windmills?

Multiple offshore windmill turbine projects have been proposed off the Delmarva coast, including hundreds of turbines which, depending on permitting and politics, could sit anywhere from 13 to 30 miles offshore. The first of these off the Maryland/Delaware coast could be operational by 2022 and the U.S. Wind plan includes 62 turbines about 17 miles from the coast, spread across 80,000 square miles of ocean.

Renewable energy is great, but what’s even better is that scientists like Duke University’s Andy Read (director of Duke’s Marine Lab) say that these turbines will act just like marine reefs and provide additional habitat for oceanic species. And lucky for us, the wind farmers don’t seem to have any issues with anglers fishing at the structures. The ruckus caused by construction could admittedly drive some species out of the area during the building phase. However, we note that reporting in “The Fisherman” magazine says that the Block Island Wind Farm, which went operational in December of 2016, has become a “blossoming fluke hotspot, with many anglers stopping on their way back from Coxes or The Dump to top off a cooler of cod or tuna with some hefty doormats.”

Anyone who’s ever fished the rigs off the Gulf coast – or for that matter the Chesapeake Light Tower, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, or the CBBT – knows that man-made structure is still structure. It’s reef. Nature will colonize it with abandon, and there are reports of that same Block Island wind farm mills being covered in a layer of mussels two inches thick. Oh yeah, and evidently these windmills are a good way to produce energy without burning stuff, too. So we at FishTalk say by all means let’s bring ‘em on.