A nonprofit group that has identified 10 sites to potentially establish artificial reefs off California’s coast received a preliminary go-ahead this week for the 655-foot USS Kawishiwi to be sunk near Dana Point Harbor, what could be a boon for tourism, local divers and marine researchers.
The Navy ship commissioned in 1955, now based in a reserve fleet in San Francisco Bay, was designated as suitable and available to be sunk as an artificial reef by federal maritime authorities, according to California Ships to Reefs, which has received tentative support for its initiatives in Dana Point, Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach.
Although reefing ships is common practice on the East Coast, because existing shipwrecks there have made clear their benefits, on the West Coast it is still relatively uncommon, said Dean Rewerts, reef development vice president for California Ships to Reefs, based in Wheatland, Calif.
The first artificial reefs were created in 1958 when 20 cars were placed off Paradise Cove in Santa Monica Bay and six wooden streetcars were sunk off Redondo Beach. Within hours, the car body reef lured surfperches, sargos, kelp bass and small California halibut, followed closely by sheephead and opaleye, according to “A Guide to Artificial Reefs of Southern California.” Within two years, 24,000 semi-resident fishes were counted and 49 species noted, the book says.
Before the Kawishiwi’s keel is sunk in 125 feet of water roughly a half mile south of harbor, the nonprofit must strip the vessel of paints and chemicals, a costly task that could take years, though Rewerts hopes it will be done partly by volunteers.
“There are stricter policies, and we want to be sure something isn’t introduced that may have pollutants and toxic substances,” said Carrie Wilson, a spokeswoman for the state Fish and Game Department, which has been involved in artificial reef building ever since the car body reef, with numerous projects as far south as the Mexican border.
Recent debates over expanding state marine reserves in naturally occurring rock bottom areas, such as Laguna Beach, has highlighted their value in sustaining marine habitats because they support a greater variety and abundance of sea life than sandy bottoms, described as marine deserts by Rewerts.
After testing cars, wooden structures, concrete boxes, tires, and quarry rock, the latter emerged as the preferred material because it provides a good surface for marine organisms to attach and small spaces for fish to find shelter. Ships were determined to be inferior because their interior spaces are too large to provide the shelter many fish seek, according to the guide book.
Even so, artificial reefs generate an economic ripple onshore too. About 10,800 dives were made annually to the Yukon ship site in San Diego, including 6,000 made by out of town visitors who spent an average of $580 per day on lodging, food and other expenses, according to a 2003 study for the San Diego Oceans Foundation by Linwood Pendleton, an marine environmental science expert. The study estimates the Yukon injects $4.5 million annually into the local economy, but cost under $500,000 to establish, a return on investment Wall Street would love. The ship was purchased for $238,000, prepped and cleaned for $97,000 and towed to the site and sunk for $100,000, according to the report.
California Ships to Reefs, established in 2007, was originally a committee of San Diego Oceans Foundation, which reefed HMCS Yukon, a former Canadian Navy frigate off San Diego in 2000.
The Kawishiwi will be the first reefed ship where comparison studies will be made, comparing onboard habitat to nearby naturally occurring rocky habitat, Rewerts said. He expects researchers from universities will be keen to analyze data collected at the site.
World-renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle, National Geographic explorer in residence, will speak at the Rigs to Reefs conference tomorrow at the Waterfront Hilton in Huntington Beach.