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Decommissioned Navy tanker gets new life on the ocean floor as part of artificial reef
Published in the Asbury Park Press 05/18/05

YO-153, a World War II-era Philadelphia Navy Yard refueling vessel, sinks 6.5 miles off Long Beach Island to become part of an artificial reef. At left, crewmen of a tug boat show where holes were cut in the ship.


World War II Navy tanker sunk 6.5 miles off Harvey Cedars on Long Beach Island becomes the 134th vessel sunk on New Jersey artificial reefs.

First of three decommissioned ships pledged this year by state Department of Environmental Protection with $100,000 in state funding, part of acting Gov. Codey's "Coast 2005'' ocean initiatives.

New Jersey's 14 reef sites increase fish productivity of coastal waters and provide one out of every five fish caught by anglers, according to a study by the state Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Source: NJ DEP

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Air and foaming sea water hissed from open hatches as the World War II Navy tanker sank, its stern hitting the sea floor 80 feet below with an audible thump. Onlookers cheered as the ship began to settle upright ? a perfect landing, for the benefit of divers and fishermen soon to be swarming over the new wreck.

"This project has been great for everyone. Years ago, every wreck out there was like a secret thing. Now, if it wasn't for these reefs, there wouldn't be enough places for all these boats to go," said Angelo Eppolito, captain of the Barnegat Light dive boat Gypsy Blood. It served as a mobile observation boat, drifting over the Garden State North artificial reef site 6.5 nautical miles off Harvey Cedars.

On Tuesday the state Department of Environmental Protection delivered the first of three decommissioned ships that DEP Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell pledged for the reefs this year, using $100,000, the first time taxpayer funds have been appropriated for reef-building.

"They're allocating money on their own for the first time, and that's a good thing," said Steven Nagiewicz, a Point Pleasant Beach dive boat captain who with other divers is promoting legislation that would provide $50,000 apiece for New Jersey to acquire bigger government surplus ships.

In more than 20 years of relying mostly on private donations and in-kind support, New Jersey's artificial reef program has grown into one of the largest efforts in American waters. State wildlife officials say the reefs generate $50 million a year in the fishing and diving industries. One state study has estimated increased biological productivity from the 14 offshore fish havens supplies 20 percent of the fish caught by New Jersey fishermen.

Farewell to YO-153

On Tuesday morning, workers from Shamrock Towing in Ocean City towed the 170-foot Navy vessel to the reef site, a 1.1-square-mile square off Long Beach Island. Built in 1943 as a yard oiler ? a small tanker that refueled warships at dockside ? the little ship once known as YO-153 served the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

The government offers old ships for free, but transportation and Coast Guard-supervised cleaning must be financed by the state. Once at the reef site, Shamrock workers cut holes in the hull and opened valves below the waterline. A towboat held the ship in its designated position while it slowly flooded.

"If boats always sank this slow, no one would drown," Eppolito said. Over the radio, a worker observed: "When you think about all the wrecks off this coast, and this one takes five or six guys and a few hours to sink her."

But sink it did, to join some 44,000 cubic yards of ships, concrete and even obsolete Army tanks sunk on the reef since the early 1980s. In coming weeks, the ship will be colonized by fish and small plants and organisms that need a hard surface to anchor themselves.

On future reef charts, the ship will be dubbed "Helis," named for the beluga whale that appeared this spring in the Delaware River, said Katherine Smith, a DEP spokeswoman.

"I've been fishing and diving on these wrecks for 20 years," said Eppolito, who in his shoreside life is a real estate agent from Waretown. "We're creating more structure, more housing for fish out here.

"It just moves up the food chain. I've seen everything, up to whales and sharks," he added. "When people are diving, they want to see life. They don't just want to see the boat (on the bottom)."

"Look at that depth finder now," fisherman Phil Celmer of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association said on the ride to the reef site, as he looked over Eppolito's shoulder. "It's like a desert out here (on the sea floor), all yellow gravel. If you took the Pine Barrens and stripped all the trees, that's what you have out here.

"You can be 10 feet from a wreck and see nothing. Once you get on the wreck, it's like New York City."

The Gypsy Blood drew up over two sunken ships. On the depth sounder, the 80-foot tugboat Dumont showed up as a bump on the sea floor, with orange dots floating around it ? most likely black sea bass, Eppolito said. In an open boat nearby, Brick fishing writer Nick Honachefsky and friend Sean Riley held up a hump-headed bass they had reeled in.

Turbulence on the reefs

The old ships are new additions to a program that's been roiled by controversy over the use of obsolete subway cars as reef material ? a donation from New York City that was favored by fishing groups and opposed by environmental activists who felt the rail cars crossed the line into ocean dumping.

Despite a compromise brokered by Campbell to accept 250 subway cars last year ? New York's offer was for more than twice as many ? ill will lingered among recreational fishing groups. Early this year, Campbell said he would seek a first-ever state appropriation for reef building, and acting Gov. Codey included it in his "Coast 2005" ocean initiatives.

"The issues we had raised (over reef materials) have all been addressed," said Cynthia A. Zipf of Clean Ocean Action, an environmental group that opposed sinking the subway cars.

Meanwhile, reefs off Sandy Hook, Shark River and Mantoloking ? the latter named for fisherman Axel Carlson ? are quietly growing with rock dredged from New York-New Jersey harbor channels, Zipf and Nagiewicz said.

"It's huge. One of the positive outcomes from the deepening project has been millions of tons of rock," Zipf said.

"The mounds are 60 feet high and half a mile long," said Nagiewicz, who said he's planning to videotape the new undersea terrain. "You can sit on the bottom and watch bluefish swim by."
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