Get Email Updates

Too Much Success: Delaware’s Artificial Reefs Get New Regs to Address Gear Conflicts

What do you call hundreds of New York City subway cars at the bottom of the ocean? If you’re a reef fish living off the coast of Delaware, you might call it home. With financial support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sport Fish Restoration Program, the state of Delaware has been collecting subway cars and many other items, such as decommissioned military vehicles and vessels, old tires, and concrete pipes, to use in its groundbreaking artificial reef program.

Delaware doesn’t have New England’s natural rocky bottoms; the ocean bottom along Delaware’s coast tends to flat sand or mud. Without natural structure to form the basis of a community, Delaware’s Division of Fish and Wildlife looked for other ways to provide structure and increase recreational fishing opportunities. New York City donated old “Redbird” subway cars to create one of the most popular artificial reefs, now called the Redbird Reef. Fish like tautog, sea bass, scup, spadefish, summer flounder, and triggerfish accepted these odd refuges, lending credence to the “build it and they will come” strategy of resource management. Fish higher on the food chain, like bluefish, striped bass, weakfish, tuna, and sharks, are also attracted to the artificial reefs, most likely by the menu options (smaller fish) they offer. According to Delaware Fish and Wildlife, their monitoring studies have shown a 400-fold increase in the amount of plankton and small baitfish in the areas surrounding artificial reefs.

An artificial reef off Delaware's coast. Credit: Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control

Delaware’s artificial reefs, first placed in 1995, became recreational and commercial fishing hotspots by 2011, with some of the reefs recording more than 10,000 trips by anglers. The reefs were so popular that hook-and-line anglers complained about their gear getting caught on commercial pots and lines set on the reefs. Officials then started hearing stories of pot and trap theft and sabotage. In management terms, the popularity of these artificial reefs created a “gear conflict” problem.

Delaware Fish and Wildlife turned to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to help address the abundance of commercial fish pots and traps on five of Delaware’s 14 artificial reefs located in Federal waters (the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, which extends from 3 to 200 miles off the U.S.’s coastline). The Council determined that it could designate these four artificial reefs as “special management zones,” under the Council’s Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass Fishery Management Plan. Such a designation would allow the Council to propose regulations that would allow only certain kinds of fishing gear to reduce the conflicts.

At the request of the Council, NOAA Fisheries published a rule in the Federal Register designating Special Management Zones for four of the five artificial reefs on June 9. These Special Management Zones allow only recreational and commercial fishing by hook and line or spear. Commercial pots and traps are no longer allowed.

We hope this new rule will help keep the peace between recreational and commercial fishermen that use Delaware’s artificial reef system, and enable Delaware Fish and Wildlife to focus its efforts on expanding its very successful artificial reef program.