“If you build it, they will come.” That is more than a movie quote—it is an axiom in fisheries conservation. Create habitat and the fish will follow. It’s a take-home message from offshore reef creation well underway, thirty years now, by the Coastal Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Excise taxes paid by manufacturers of sport fishing gear and on motorboat fuel drive the creation of new fish habitats along the Peach State’s coast. Thirty-one artificial reefs totaling 80 square-miles exist under the purview of the Georgia DNR. These reef sites receive materials destined to rest on the seafloor and create fish habitat. Proceeds from Georgia’s fishing license sales figure large, coupled with a specialty automobile license plate that combined help pay the way for more habitat, more fish—and better fishing.
There is ample opportunity for it, too. The sea floor reaching out 80 miles is naturally devoid of fish habitat. It is mainly soft sand and mud, nearly flat. The sea floor gently slopes eastward toward the Continental Shelf at around a one-foot drop for every mile.
To improve fishing for cobia, amberjack, tuna, wahoo, groupers and sea bass, the Georgia DNR periodically sinks materials that rest on the sea bottom (and not in a landfill). Artificial reef material provide the substrate for the first natural building blocks of sea life from algae, corals, invertebrates, and up the food chain to sport fish and anglers aboard a wafting boat with downriggers deployed.
In 2020, the Georgia DNR laid portions of a salvaged cargo vessel on an existing reef 60 feet deep—150 tons of clean steel and bronze, including a 100-ton propeller, rudder and stern tube section. With an assist from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Willow, a reef received 17 salvaged concrete buoy sinker blocks weighing 148,500 pounds total. A retired 72-foot shrimping vessel and a former 180-foot menhaden fishing boat both found new life in reefs submerged 70 feet below the surface.
Other matter used in the past include surplus from the Department of Defense in the form of M65 combat tanks; former New York City subway cars; used concrete; razed steel bridges; and retired WWII Liberty ships that carried materiel during the war. Anything deployed to the sea floor to create fish habitat is sufficiently cleaned.
“The offshore reefs are special management zones and have some protection from commercial harvest,” said Paul Medders with the Georgia DNR. “The Sport Fish Restoration dollars manifest in reefs and their fish are there for the angler.” Medders notes that offshore reefs complement oyster bed restoration and inshore reef creation in tidal estuaries that conserve shoreline and afford opportunities for near-shore coastal anglers—also supported by industry excise taxes.
An old movie quote is a monument to late-1980s American culture. The artificial reefs are lasting monuments themselves—monuments to the enduring partnership between state fish and wildlife agencies, the fishing tackle industry and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration program. If you build fish habitat, the fish will follow—and so will the anglers.
To learn more about offshore reefs in Georgia, visit the Coastal Resources Division website.