Delaware’s Newest Artificial Reef
by Steve Donohue
I recently witnessed the sinking of the Mid-Atlantic’s newest artificial reef, the 180 foot long former military and fishing vessel Shearwater. Artificial reefs create habitat for fish and recreation for fisherman and divers like me, as well as structure for the growth of encrusting organisms, including corals, mussels, and sponges, that provide fish with food. They also help replace natural hard bottom areas that has been lost over the years to sedimentation.
Commissioned in 1944 for World War II, the Shearwater had a long and productive post-war career as a fishing vessel plying the waters off the Delmarva Peninsula. Prior to her sinking, the ship’s age required that EPA verify the removal of possible contaminated materials. In September, EPA completed a walk-through of the vessel to verify that it had been fully stripped based on best management practices and that floatable plastic debris, insulation and peeling paint was removed. The U.S. Coast Guard also inspected the Shearwater to confirm there was no oil on-board.
As the sun was coming up on December 11, 2015, representatives from Delaware, EPA, the local newspaper, and ship reefing specialists from Coleen Marine left the dock, bound for the offshore reef site, 26 nautical miles off the coast of Delaware. By late morning we had rendezvoused with the Shearwater which was towed from Newport News by the tug Justin. We pulled up alongside the Shearwater and the team from Coleen Marine scrambled aboard to begin final preparations by opening all through-hull fittings and burning and cutting additional holes in the vessel.
By early afternoon, the Shearwater was settling lower in the water and the team abandoned ship. The sea poured in, washed over her deck, and caused her to list to her port side. Around 2:00 pm she capsized, rolling onto her back, sinking stern first toward the bottom.
With a final nudge from the Justin at 4:00 pm, the team’s efforts paid off and the Shearwater exhaled her last breath, sinking to the sand 130 feet below. A sonar survey showed that the top of Delaware’s newest artificial reef is over 100 feet below the surface and she is resting on her side. I was pleased that there was no floatable debris or oily sheen coming from the Shearwater at any time during the day.
As the sun set, we left the reef site for home and the Justin sounded her horn in final salute. It was a long day, but worth it to witness my first deployment of an artificial reef after many years diving on them. While the Shearwater will never see the light of day again it will have many more productive years ahead of her in a new role as an artificial reef.
About the author: Steve Donohue has been an environmental scientist at EPA for over 25 years. He runs the EPA Mid-Atlantic Scientific Dive Unit and works to address climate change and improve the efficiency and sustainability of government and private sector facilities.
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