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Friends of RGV Reef has launched a major new phase of its artificial reefing project off South Padre Island, even as fishing boats reel in large numbers of red snapper the reef is already producing.

Gary Glick, president of Friends of RGV Reef, said 20 million pounds of concrete railroad ties and other materials are being sunk over the next few weeks at the 1,650-acre reef site eight nautical miles off the coast and 14 nautical miles north of the Brazos Santiago Pass jetties.

“We’ll move more material in this one deployment than exists in any of the other Texas reefs,” he said. “We’re going to lay down the bones of a new 400-acre nursery reef.”

Glick said the activity is taking place inside a section of RGV Reef that until now has had only a thin layer of material.

“If you just put small material down, which is what the baby red snapper need, then after a while that material may sink or get covered, so what we’re going to try to do is make a nursery reef that’s going to last for decades,” he said.

Glick said the new reefing will consist of 25 tons of railroad ties, 25 tons of broken concrete on top of that and a sprinkling of 432 cinder blocks.

“We’re going to make 54 of those, and then protecting it we’re going to put down 16 high-relief piles of concrete, 250 tons each,” he said.

No one else in the Gulf is building reefs that combine low, medium, high and very high relief elements that sustain fish through all stages of the life cycle, Glick said. The point is to substantially increase the numbers of red snapper and other fish in the waters off SPI. Part of that means creating habitat on an otherwise featureless seafloor offering young fish few places to escape predators. The initial deployment of reef material attracted tens of thousands of juvenile snapper almost immediately, Glick said.

More fish to catch means more people coming to catch fish, which is good for the economy. It’s no coincidence that among the reef project’s benefactors is the SPI Economic Development Corporation.

“We’re putting fish back in the Gulf by raising them from babies,” Glick said. “What you get if you raise fish from babies is you ges lots of fish. Every weekend there are 12 or 15 bay boats out there with several offshore boats.”

The current materials deployment phase began Jan. 2 and will continue into February, Glick said. It begins a year after Friends lost access to the vessel it had hired for materials deployment, a Vietnam-era landing craft named Lil Mo, which caused reef building to grind to a halt. Now the project has hired a new vessel: the Dry Tortugas, an offshore supply ship based in Houma, La.

It wouldn’t be possible to rent such a vessel without financial assistance from the project’s partners, Glick said.

“We paid $137,000 just to get the boat to show up,” he said. “When she carries a full load, which is 325 tons, it’s $12,000 every times she goes out. We’re paying her by the ton.”

Glick said he hopes to have enough money for another deployment in the fall. Donors, meanwhile, can rest assured that each dollar the project receives is stretched to the max, he said. Thanks to donations of labor, equipment, storage space and reef material, the project is being accomplished for a fraction of the cost of a typical artificial reefing contract, Glick noted.

The Port of Brownsville is helping out by providing two acres with deepwater frontage and a railroad siding for storing and handling the donated railroad ties, box culverts, cinder blocks and other material. Though the reef project is “rocking along,” Glick said, he fears major construction projects on the horizon will squeeze out Friends of RGV Reef and put a stop to construction.

“It actually worries me a little bit,” he said. “How long are they going to be able to give us that space? We really have this sense of urgency to do it now. This is why we’re so urgently trying to raise money now, because we do have this fabulous opportunity that cannot last.”

Steve Clark