The USS Arthur W. Radford, a 563-foot Navy destroyer, once rode the waves. Now it is the latest addition to a Navy recycling program that turns worn-out warships into habitats for marine life. The Radford was sunk 20 miles east of Delaware's Fenwick Island, where officials are hoping it will prove a powerful lure for fish – and tourists – on the sandy seafloor.
"It should dramatically increase the use of dive boats operating on all three states' ports," boosting tourism for Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey, said Jeff Tinsman, Delaware's artificial-reef coordinator.
In the midst of an economic downturn, sinking naval vessels for artificial reefs aims to achieve multiple goals. It creates new ocean habitat and a tourist destination, while also ridding the Navy of outdated ships. Half of all U. S. coastal states have created artificial reefs or plan to do so.
But some environmentalists, as well as federal and independent scientists, question whether the program provides ecological benefits.
"They're throwing debris down there and saying it's an economic opportunity, but they're not looking into the environmental impacts," said Colby Self, who is the green ship recycling coordinator for the Basel Action Network and co-authored a recent report on the Navy's sinking program.
The Army Corps of Engineers must approve the projects, and the Environmental Protection Agency inspects each vessel before it is sunk and can provide advice on where to place it. But state and federal officials are exploring issues such as whether traces of remaining toxic chemicals pose a hazard and whether the ships concentrate fish in areas where they're more likely to be caught. Only a few studies have examined the impact on the ocean of artificial reefs.
The question of whether artificial reefs provide ecological benefits has "been out there for 50 years or more," said Tinsman, of Delaware's Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. "If that was any easy question, it would have been answered long ago."
Some studies indicate that these manmade reefs may harm ocean species, even as they provide clear economic benefits.
"Adding more habitat is not the issue," said James Bohnsack, a research fishery biologist at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. "You need to protect the fish populations."
Donald Schregardus, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for the environment, said in a phone interview that when it comes to creating reefs, the Navy simply responded to states' requests.
"We let them decide what they want and if they have an interest in these ships," Schregardus said. "We are not the experts on whether they are increasing fish populations or whether they are the attraction for divers and fishermen. But we want to make sure they're safe." The project to clean, recon-figure and sink the Radford cost $945,000. Contractors removed the wiring, ductwork and gaskets that could contain PCBs and they continue to test for remaining traces of the chemicals.
No one questions that artificial reefs attract many aquatic species, including open ocean fish such as mackerel and amberjack and some sharks.
Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware all sank New York City subway cars off their coasts several years ago. Tinsman said the cars have lured species ranging from black sea bass to triggerfish. He noted that the number of annual fishing trips to one subway car site rose from 300 to 17,000. "That's the kind of impact something like that can have."
But some scientists worry that anglers may be catching and consuming fish that have absorbed contaminants leaching from decommissioned vessels. These ships have carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), as well as oil, asbestos and other pollutants.
The EPA requires that any ship destined to become an artificial reef not contain PCB levels above 50 parts per billion. But some fish can accumulate PCBs in their bodies over time as they consume smaller fish, causing their contaminant levels to rise above that threshold.
Maine sanctuary managers are hoping that the increase in divers and anglers near artificial reefs will ease human pressure on natural reefs. Sean Morton, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary,
said that a sunken ship off Key Largo has diverted tourists from neighboring natural reefs but one off Key West has not.
"There's no need to get any more artificial reefs done at this point, until we know the impact of what we've already done," Causey said of the Florida Keys.