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Local fishermen spur reef revival

A hollowed concrete reef ball is dropped into the Pamlico River at Bayview in early May. The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries is “testing the waters” to determine what materials will be best suited to restore the deteriorated existing reef. (Contributed Photo/Betty Stewart)

Eight years in the making, an artificial reef in the Pamlico River is recasting its lure to both fish and fishermen alike.

Edgar Taft, Bayview resident and fisherman, started the journey to the reef’s recovery nearly a decade ago. Taft raised money for the project, got his friend Billy Byrd on board and started the governmental process that would rebuild the deteriorating reef — a heap of used tires dug deep into the soft mud bottom and scattered by decades of hurricane swells.

According to Taft, that’s where the process stalled, but after years of limbo the project took a leap forward earlier this month when a North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries barge arrived in the Bayview waters and began dropping large, concrete forms by crane over the side, into the river. According to Jim Francesconi, director of reef projects with the NCDMF, the reef balls are just the start of a year-long testing period that may very well play a part in how artificial reefs are built in inland waters across the country.

“This is an experimental area,” said Francesconi. “What we learn on this reef site will possibly go to develop other areas. If we have some success with this, it can be used on a national level.”

In addition to the 17-acres of tires that remain from the original reef, the experimental 10-acre area of river bottom now holds 75 reef balls — 15 each of five different sizes, ranging from mini bay balls at 1.75 foot tall and perforated with 8 to 12 holes to recreate the reef-like experience for aquatic life, to ultra balls which stand 4.3-feet and are dotted with 22 to 34 holes. A year of settling will determine what reef balls can be used and where.

It’s careful work, according to Francesconi, and new ground for an agency that has plenty of experience building offshore reefs. Materials are smaller and must be placed with more precision. A mandated five-foot clearance between the reef and the water’s surface, adjusted for tides, has worked out to countless measurements taken.

All involved say the end result will be worth it.

For Francesconi, it’s scientific data that can be shared with other state agencies interested in estuarine reefs. For Byrd, who sits on the national board of the Coastal Conservation Association, the reef means a boost for inland sport fishing and “the preservation of marine fisheries.”

Great striped bass fishing within easy distance was the motivation for Taft, a Greenville native who retired to Bayview. According to Francesconi, fishermen like Taft are the reason why state governments are taking an interest in, and funding research for, inland reefs.

“There’s a pretty large demographic of people — the baby boomers — that have been very interested in recreational fishing all their lives. (They’re) at the age now they’re looking for something more peaceful, closer to home,” explained Francesconi.

Inland reefs represent a shorter drive, the use of a smaller boat, spending less on fuel and getting more days to fish than a comparable trip to fish an ocean reef. There’s no limit to the number of people who can fish the reef, Francesconi added: people in kayaks and canoes have just as easy access since the reef balls start in seven feet of water.

Taft believes the reef will be a huge draw for sport fishermen throughout the state, and a boon to the local economy.

There are many steps left in the process: sonar and divers, the installation of concrete culvert pipes and platforms to vary heights and emulate the natural formation of reefs. Once the state’s testing is done, the money Taft raised through donations from companies like Grady White Boats and First South Bank will pay for enough reef balls to cover 80 acres of river bottom.

While the reef is far from finished, fishermen are more than welcome. Likely Taft and Byrd will be in the next boat, dropping a line themselves.

“We’ve been coming to Washington all our lives to fish,” said Taft. “We love the river.”