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Vol 41 | Num 1 | May 4, 2016

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An Interview With...

Article by Larry Jock

It would be hard to argue that when it comes to an organization that has significantly impacted fishing off the Delmarva coast, the Ocean City Reef Foundation would have to be at or near the top of the list.

I recently had an opportunity to talk to Captain Monty Hawkins, President of the Reef Foundation, about the past, present and future of the organization.

When did the Ocean City Reef Foundation get started and who was involved in the start-up?

Back in 1997, The Maryland Department of Natural Resources dropped their reef program. We were building cable reefs like crazy and could easily see how effective reef building was. Charles and Ray Nichols took the initiative and, along with DeWitt Myatt, who was building reefs off South Carolina and Bob Mason from the Town of Ocean City, formed a 501(c)(3) and named the organization The Ocean City Reef Foundation.

Who is currently involved with the organization?

Gail Blazer heads-up the Town of Ocean City's Army Corp. of Engineering permit compliance efforts. We could not build anything without her efforts. Greg Hall is the Past President & still active in the organization. I'm the current President/Secretary. Our “cabinet consists of Ted Green, Rick Younger, Jeremiah Kogon, plus occasionally Nick Caloyianis and Clarita Berger, all from the dive community. Dan Stauffer, a charter boat captain, is also frequently asked to give input. Heather Bahrami & Wes Pollitt are currently working with Amanda Shick for fundraising at this year's Reef Dinner on May 15th at the Marlin Club.

How many locations are contained in the OCRF system?

We have 9 active marine reefs from 800 yards offshore out to 19 miles. We also have 1 coastal bay reef, the Bob Mason Reef along 3rd and 4th Streets, but that permit is expired.

What is your philosophy on creating sites?

Building new reef habitat allows fish to flourish by expanding spawning grounds.

How do you determine where to create a site?

Some reef permits are from the early 1950’s. I do not know how they were selected. In the late 1990’s I began working with the Maryland trawl community to expand our permitted reef building areas. Dave Martin was essential in helping me choose areas that were already ill suited to trawling and so well suited to reef building. Though mostly small boxes around existing shipwrecks, such as Jack & Sue Power's Reef at the Jackspot or Sue Foster's Reef at Isle of Wight Shoal, our efforts also created a 4.5 square-mile permit at the Bass Grounds.

How do you determine what material to drop on a site?

In the mid-2000’s Maryland developed Artificial Reef Guidelines that spell out what you can and cannot use for material. It is really basic, common sense stuff; we have to clean steel boats & cannot use small fiberglass boats --- NO MORE TIRES.

What organizations do you partner with or lean on to get a site created?

The Town of Ocean City and the Army Corp. of Engineering hold the keys. If we get permitted, we'll generally partner with individuals and family foundations such as the Gudelsky or Nichols Family Foundations for funding. Both have been extremely generous. That said, we did spend $50,000 from a Maryland bond bill received last year from the Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative (MARI). We are ALWAYS hoping to expand funding opportunities.

Will you be partnering with neighboring states on upcoming sites?

Sure would like to. Our free-dive community, which has been especially generous, would really like a site at Fenwick Shoal. That means partnering with Delaware. I'd really like to stitch together the artificial reef footprint along our coast with a large reef site just east of Fenwick Shoal, but inshore of the Shipping Lanes. We could create a lot of fishery production there in a short amount of time.

Then too, the very same opportunities present themselves at Winter Quarter Shoal to our south, where we would have the same situation with the state of Virginia.

How was the Ocean City Reef Foundation involved in the big Del-Jersey-Land Reef Site?

My boat, the “Morning Star”, contributed $3,500 to that specific reef. The Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative contributed a lot more, but nowhere near a full third of cost. Delaware takes their reef building seriously. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is supposed to contribute sonar surveys in the future, but I'm unsure of the promise's actuality.

What is your oldest reef site?

Purnell's Reef, Kelly's Reef and Russell's Reef were all first permitted in 1951. Readers would be amazed at how much trouble is involved with renewing permits - even permits with that much history.

What material was dropped at your oldest sites? Is it still there?

The ocean is powerful and unforgiving. There are even documented instances of entire ships being moved during heavy weather. I am only aware of several reefs built in the 1970’s - including a tire reef.

Most reef builders believe that tires are not good for generating growth, yet the ones in our system that haven’t migrated all the way to the beach are fabulously covered in hard & soft corals.

It's entirely likely that tire reefs are responsible for present-day upper management's resistance to reef building. Tires were used from New York to Texas and everyone watched them break apart and wash ashore because of steel bands rusting through.

Tire reef units made with rebar and counterweighted with concrete have remained perfectly in place and are doing exactly what we'd like, which is growing coral and providing fish habitat.

No reefs were built off the coast of Maryland from the tire fiasco in the late 1970’s until the late 1980’s when the Town of Ocean City sank the Penrod, a small barge dropped near the African Queen.

What is your largest site?

It is definitely the Bass Grounds. It was once an amazingly productive natural, hard bottom reef community, but it was all lost by the mid-1970’s, mostly from unregulated surf clamming. We have the entire area under permit now and are slowly trying to restore lost fisheries production.

What is your newest site?

Our newest site is the Sue Foster's Reef at Isle of Wight Shoal.

What materials did you drop there?

There are 22 stainless steel subway cars, that are not as good as they sound, an old natural wreck, several small barge-loads of concrete pipe at Lindsey Power's Reef and 4 huge loads of concrete spread between Sue's Drifting Easy Reef & Lindsey's.

In your experience, what is the best material to use for reef building?

Precast concrete and boulder are definitely the best! They will last the better part of forever and they stay right where you place them.

What species of fish have you documented on your sites?

We have seen sea bass, summer flounder (fluke), tautog, red hake (ling), bergall, cod, pollock, spadefish, triggerfish, squid and a wide range of predators including bluefin, bluefish, barracuda, amberjack, many types of shark, plus who could guess how many others. From the fish’s perspective, it's real coral. They cannot tell the substrate is artificial.

Have you ever found any species that you didn’t expect?

Once common in the Chesapeake Bay and even to New York, we are seeing sheepshead on our near-shore reefs in late summer and fall. This species is routinely found in archeological digs along the Chesapeake Bay. I believe the oyster’s collapse caused the sheepshead population to collapse. There’s no fishery in local memory or in Chesapeake lore at all. Only in the last few years are anglers seeing this species, especially in the Chesapeake Bay on very large reefs made from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge rubble.

How fast does it take for a site to begin holding fish?

Build a reef in the morning during June and you could have sea bass that afternoon. Sea bass, lobster and tautog love to “hide” in artificial reefs.

But this early use is hardly what we're after with reef building. As a general rule; when tautog begin using a reef, it's grown-in. For them, the reef is the food web. They feed on crabs & mussels.

Do fish use the sites as spawning locations or do they just reside there?

I think it a safe bet that all reef fish that use our artificial constructions also spawn there. I'd like folks to especially know that means FLOUNDER. They spawn on hard bottoms in the fall.

How often do you get videos taken to document fish activity on your reefs?

We have done a lot of monitoring work. There are also scuba & free divers who wear & use Go-Pro cameras. You have run some of them on your Coastal Fisherman website. You can find most of them on YouTube.

I’ve noticed that you have many reefs named in a persons honor. How does someone get a reef named?

All it takes is a nice donation to the Ocean City Reef Foundation. We have many reefs named after loved ones. It is a great way to carry on their memory.

How has the famous subway car reefs worked out? Where were they dropped and have they held up?

The subway cars were almost a great success. All of them are being used by fish and most of them are being fished. Unfortunately, while all government agencies thought they'd remain intact for 15 to 20 years, and I thought longer, about 60% of them have been skinned by heavy weather. Apparently welds weaken in saltwater and the very thin skin is ripped away in storm swells. The bases do remain and have already been used by an incredible number of reef fish to feed, shelter from predators, grow to maturity and spawn.
The skins are made of sheet metal and are a royal pain in the neck for commercial trawlers. I wish we'd foreseen it.

We have all heard stories about the old days when white marlin were caught at the Jackspot or as close as Great Gull Shoal. Have you seen an influx of larger fish on some of your reef sites?

I can think of a growing list of examples, like the tiger shark I saw that was longer than my transom is wide, or the small pod of white marlin at the Great Eastern Reef when there was a shot of blue water. We also see bluefin tuna every year at the Jackspot & Great Eastern reefs along with sand tiger sharks on all our inshore reefs. I’ve also seen some good size cobia and amberjack.

What are the short-term and long-term goals of the Ocean City Reef Foundation?

Our primary goal is to turn contributions into coral. We have dropped a lot of concrete on the ocean bottom during the last couple of years. Because of our recent successes, we’re seeing more support from the fishing and diving communities.

How does someone become a member of the Ocean City Reef Foundation and what is the annual cost?

By IRS rules, we are not allowed to have "members." We do have sponsors, about 400 of them right now. While we'll accept any amount, those that donate at least $50.00 receive a set of charts and we have a variety of gifts for donors of all levels. Some folks prefer a simple “thank you” and want all of their money put to work. This is a young effort. We’ll take all the help we can get. You can join on our website or you can swing by the Coastal Fisherman office where you can also pick-up your Reef Chart book.

How often are the Reef Charts updated?

I have combed through the charts over the last few years. They are highly accurate and brought up to date each February.

Do charter and headboats that utilize the reefs have special contribution opportunities? Are they all members?

I refer you to the poem “Two Kinds of People” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, the one about lifters and leaners. One thing’s a fact, more and more are helping as they see our successes.

When is your popular annual OCRF dinner fundraiser this year?

The dinner will be on May 15th at the Ocean City Marlin Club. The event has really grown. As always, Chef Mike will have a great spread and there will be plenty of nice things to win in live and silent auctions. In fact, I’m confident that Heather Bahrami is going to assemble our best auction yet!

What does the future hold for the OCRF?

It all depends on funding! Nobody receives a salary in the organization. We do spend a little on fundraising and permit compliance monitoring but the rest goes overboard in reef material, especially pre-cast concrete!

We hope donors realize how expensive this project is. More contributions means more concrete, which creates more coral and more fish!

In coming years, our recent efforts will begin to truly shine. In 2016 we put over 100 tractor-trailer loads of concrete on the bottom. It will all grow coral. If the Ocean City Reef Foundation could do that every year, we'd make a dramatic improvement in fishing off the Delmarva coast.

In addition to being President of the Ocean City Reef Foundation, Capt. Monty Hawkins can be found at the helm of the headboat, “Morning Star” docked at the Ocean City Fishing Center.


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