State expands artifical reef program with steel rail cars, turbine, tugboat

Originally published in Newsday on September 16, 2020.

New York State on Wednesday sent tons more heavy steel structures to Davy Jones' Locker three miles south of Point Lookout in a continuation of the large-scale artificial reef program hailed by recreational fishermen, environmentalists and scuba divers.

Wednesday’s effort to expand the Hempstead reef in ocean water up to 70 feet deep is part of an effort begun by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2018 to expand a reef program begun in 1949 that had gone dormant for decades.

"It’s about improving habitat and making use of delinquent equipment … and it’s about boosting the economy," said Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Weeks and months after the material is dropped, he said, "We begin to see life. … It’s a haven immediately for fish."

"Our children will thank us for them years from now," Cuomo said

Cuomo and other state and county officials, including Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, Sens. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), John Brooks (D-Seaford), and Jim Gaughran (D-Northport), and Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket) were on the water to witness the latest drop — 16 steel rail cars from Wells Fargo weighing 42,000 pounds each, a 120,000-pound steel turbine from a Niagara Falls power plant, and the rusted hull of an old tugboat. The rail cars were donated and the turbine was a castoff from a New York Power Authority plant.

Cuomo said the reef program is one of 12 around Long Island and all help the ecology of the fishery while stimulating tourism. All the material is hard metal, rock or concrete and is scrubbed of any pollutants before being cast from barges sixty feet to the ocean bottom.

Pre-1993 reef programs sent thousands of tires, automobile bodies, even ice cream trucks to the bottom, but considerably more stringent rules regulate what can be sent down today.

The Hempstead reef is some 744 acres around, with structures about 100 yards apart. The state earlier this year submitted a plan to vastly expand the reef program, including the Hempstead reef, to 850 acres.

The restart of the reef program began in 2018 with large chunks of the old Tappan Zee and City Island bridges.

State officials were not able to say what the budget was for the program. "The material here basically is at no cost," Cuomo said, calling the costs "minimal." "The only cost is the barge that actually drops it," he said.

One drawback of the program, the DEC has said in a report on its expansion: the loss of some 6,800 acres of sea bottom to commercial fishing, because heavy trawl nets and traps would easily tangle and snare in the large structures.

Officials used the event to highlight danger signs in the environment from climate change that are evident in recent storms and wildfires ranging out west, saying continued denial of those signs is akin to denying warning signs of COVID-19.

"It shows you how dangerous denial is," Cuomo said. "We denied all the warning signs" with COVID-19. "It’s the same pattern with climate change. Warning, warning, warning and you do nothing."

Seggos said the nation is "beyond the inflection point" on climate change. "Our country is literally burning."