NOVEMBER 28, 2016


A derelict tugboat christened “The Sting” and a rusty old shrimper, “Gulf Explorer,” have been pressed back into service — on the bottom of the Gulf.

The two boats were sunk in 70 feet of water on Nov. 15 as part of an artificial reef being created by Friends of RGV Reef. The boats were towed to a site almost 14 nautical miles north of the South Padre Island jetties and eight miles offshore before sinking.

Towing was provided free of charge by Billy Kennon, owner of Marine Salvage & Services Inc. in Port Isabel. Kennon also sold Friends the 30-ton trawler and 40-ton seagoing tug at a steep discount. The aim of the 1,600-acre project is to substantially boost the red snapper population, said Gary Glick, Friends president. Snapper is a prized recreational game fish.

“Friends of RGV Reef is exceptionally grateful for Billy Kennon’s help,” he said.

The Texas International Fishing Tournament and the Building Conservation Trust, the Coastal Conservation Association’s national habitat program, also contributed, Glick said.

Kennon and Dale Shively of TexasParks and Wildlife’s Artificial Reefing Program were instrumental in securing permission from the U.S. Coast Guard for the tow, Glick said. Friends received permission to tow and sink the boats from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in July. Divers Curtis Hayungs and Bryan Ruiz of McAllen and William Schmidt of South Padre Island donated their time during the sinking.

Large floats were secured to the tops of the vessels before they were sunk so they would land upright, which makes for better fish habitat and is “more fun for scuba divers,” Glick said. The boats provide a high-relief component for the reef and will serve as habitat for reef fish as well as migratory species such as kingfish, jack fish and ling, he said.

The next phase will be to create “mid-rise” reef in the form of 4,000 tons of large riprap — concrete highway dividers, box culverts and slabs of roadway (donated by Foremost Paving Inc. of Brownsville), and low-relief reef composed of some 60,000 cinder blocks and 2,000 tons of small limestone riprap, which will serve as a snapper nursery.

“Based on test patches, biologists think we can grow from 30,000 to 160,000 red snapper to catchable size in two years,” he said. “That’s a huge number of fish. This will be first time anybody’s done it on industrial scale. The problem with being first is there is not a ‘Low-Relief Reef for Dummies’ book. We’re having to learn how to do it.”

The next phase likely will occur this spring, at which point the project will be about 10 percent complete. Glick said the three components of the reef will work together to nurture fish populations. More vessels will eventually be sunk as part of the project, he said.

Glick said Friends has $400,000 budgeted for the upcoming work thanks to the Building Conservation Trust, the City of South Padre Island Convention Center and Visitors Bureau, the SPI Economic Development Corporation, the Texas International Fishing Tournament and Max Nichols, a donor and RGV fishing enthusiast from Kansas.

Friends is hoping to find a good deal on oceangoing barge services, which are extremely expensive but essential to transport the riprap and cinder blocks, Glick said. How long it will take to build up the entire reef depends on whether the group’s grant applications to BP bear fruit, he said. Friends has applied for $12 million total. Without that money the project probably will take much longer, said Glick, who estimated the total cost at $20 million.

Once it’s finished the reef is likely to have a big economic impact locally because of the effect on snapper populations, he said. Glick cited the Alabama Reefing Project, which started in the 1980s.

“They have 3.7 percent of the Gulf coastline and take 30 to 40 percent of the recreational snapper take every year, and it’s been well studied,” he said. “Several sources say it’s a $50 million to $60 million economic impact every year. We think that’s entirely doable. That’s kind of what we’re up to.”