New Artificial Reef Proposal Surfaces on West Coast

Dr. Harry Wong is not the first person to conjure up the possible good which could be made from just a few of the 125 or so mothballed reserve fleet vessels that the U.S. Maritime Administration oversees, and would like to dispose of. He’s also not the first person or entity to suggest that a large number of these aging hulls could be deliberately sunk to be used as artificial reefs. He just might be, however, perfectly positioned to take advantage of a growing domestic trend.

The concept has real merit: a track record to support the legal, safe and environmentally correct disposal of these vessels, a proven playbook from others who have wandered down the same path and a logical reason to proceed. Trying to accomplish all of this in California, however, will be much easier said than done.

Wong is president of California Ships2 Reefs, an activist group of devoted scuba divers, scientists and engineers. They hope to sink up to 20 ships off the California coast and thereby create an underwater network of artificial reefs. Wong calls the proposed project, “A win-win proposition for everyone.” Wong sounds eerily like the “Sink the Vandenberg” group who successfully (and after ten long years of trying) secured funds last December to sink the former USNS Vandenberg just south of Key West, FL.

Wong has also started another group, the Northern California Oceans Foundation, for the purpose of reaching out to 10 Northern California cities adjacent to the locations he has chosen for his first 10 offshore wrecks. Although Wong and his followers are far beyond the conceptual stage, they haven’t yet filed any formal applications to reef their first vessel. Wong told MarEx today that, “We hope to reef our first vessel within three years.” He went to say that he has had conversations with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to get the ball rolling on his ambitious plans.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Maritime Administration told MarEx that Dr. Wong had not contacted them regarding any reefing plans. MARAD spokesperson Shannon Russell told MarEx, “We’re looking at any and every avenue to dispose of these vessels, but it’s a long process.” She went on to say that MARAD has had no meetings or contacts with State of California officials. As a matter of official policy, MARAD does not deal with private groups, individuals or other similar organizations when arranging for the disposal of their obsolete hulls.

Dr. Wong faces a long, uphill battle in his quest to reef as many as 20 of MARAD’s aging vessels. And, while MARAD would probably love to accommodate him, the labyrinth of state and federal regulations in his way will take time and money ??" a lot of money, as much as $5 million ??" to navigate. Typically, MARAD’s vessels have been disposed of in the conventional manner of dismantling in various venues, here and abroad. The environmental aspects of doing this has raised the costs of doing so to the point where it has become all but uneconomical in the United States. Shannon Russell says, “There is a capacity issue with recycling in the U.S.; this is just another way to reduce the backlog of vessels.”

As artificial reefs, the ships will not only be a recreational resource for divers and fishermen, but could also serve as an underwater classroom. Back in Florida, Joe Wetherby explained, “The Vandenberg has commercial value to the Keys and its proposed reefing position will take recreational traffic pressure off of the only living coral reef in the country and take it onto the artificial platform.” In California Dr. Wong understands that “The state of Florida knows the value of an artificial reef far better than does the average Californian.” Still, he hopes to educate local community groups as to the financial advantages which can be achieved through eco-tourism dollars, once an artificial reef is place.

Anyone familiar with the processes associated with disposing of old, obsolete tonnage for scrapping in the new millennium also knows that the task of getting rid of these hulls is anything but easy. The U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) has a Congressional mandate to do just that with more than 100 old vessels that are spread amongst three reserve fleets in California, Texas and Virginia. Through no fault of their own, MARAD has already missed one deadline, primarily because of the lack of adequate funding to do the job, but also because of the continuously changing, onerous - and sometimes ambiguous - regulatory requirements related to issues of toxic materials left inside the old ships. Recently, the US Coast Guard has even imposed somewhat controversial requirements related to the cleaning of the old hulls before disposal so as to prevent the spread of invasive species. As a result, says Weatherby, “The cost of preparing one of these vessels has gone from just under $2.25 million to almost $6 million.”

While California Ships 2 Reefs is attempting to enlist the help of the California Department of Fish and Game to act as an administrative liaison throughout the process, the process could prove to be much more difficult in California than it is anywhere else. Local environmental experts warn of potential “fish kills” and the usual concerns about PCB’s and other contaminants have also been raised.

About 75 of the obsolete vessels are located conveniently at the U.S. Maritime Administration’s Suisun Bay, CA fleet. The majority of those are scheduled for eventual disposal. Wong’s most difficult task, beyond navigating the maze of federal and state regulations, will be to raise the $5 million needed to reef his first vessel.

In the latter part of 2002, a MARAD plan, in coordination with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was floated in the state of Louisiana. The plan called for sinking up to 100 vessels in the wetlands of Louisiana’s St. Bernard parish and the idea was presented at the Breaux Task Force and would have consisted initially of a one-ship pilot program. Working in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the program was designed to see if the sunken vessel could assist Louisiana in addressing its barrier island erosion problems.

The idea had merit, at least as a conceptual model, following similar guidelines and procedures for an already established artificial reefing program. Unfortunately, the plan was poorly explained to the public (and in part as a result of poor and biased reporting in the press), so it was virtually “dead on arrival” in Louisiana. With this lesson in mind, California Ships 2 Reefs will need to do a much better job of explaining their goals to state officials and local Californians in a place where the environment typically gets far more attention than it does in some places on the Gulf Coast. Wong will clearly have his work cut out for him. But, he’s off to a good start.