Friends of the RGV Reef sunk their fourth vessel on Nov. 15 as work on the massive artificial reefing project off South Padre Island continues.

The 78-foot former shrimp boat was christened the Genco Energy Services/Murray Meggison in recognition of the company’s donations of necessary equipment to support the project, which has resulted in an explosion of red snapper and other game fish populations off the coast since it began in 2015.

“We needed extended forklifts really bad, and they donated extended reach forklifts over a period of two years, plus all of our nighttime lighting needs,” said Friends President Gary Glick. “That saved us six figures.”

Meggison is owner and president of Genco. Last month Friends, a nonprofit organization, sank a 96-foot shrimp boat dubbed the EMR/Capt. Berry in honor of International Shipbreaking/EMR Group and the company’s vice president, Robert Berry, for their support of the 1,650-acre reefing project, located 8 nautical miles off the Island and 14 nautical miles north of the Brazos Santiago Pass jetties. The typical Texas artificial reef is 80 acres.

Friends sank a derelict tugboat and another shrimper four years to the day before the Genco was sent to the bottom this month. Glick said preparing the retired vessels for reefing requires an obsessive level of attention to decontamination and stripping all non-metal parts. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Artificial Reefing Program must sign off on the decontamination work before the boats are deeded to TPWD and then sunk, he said.

Meanwhile, the project has acquired two additional vessels for decontamination and sinking at the earliest opportunity, Glick said. Sunken boats are just one aspect of RGV reef, which also includes thousands of tons of low- and medium-relief elements such as cinder blocks, broken box culverts and concrete railroad ties.

Last January the project sank 12,640 tons of material and is planning to do another deployment beginning this January — opportune timing since deployment vessels are largely idle the first of the year, which makes them cheaper to hire, Glick said.

“We’ve got about 12,000 tons on the yard right now,” he said. “I don’t think that we can pass up this chance to reduce our marine transport deployment cost, because they’re the majority of our cost. If we can reduce the marine transport 40% then that means we can put out 40% more material.”

Glick described the project as the world’s largest industrial-scale nursery reef. Friends also plans to dump material at a site 18 miles offshore where TPWD sank the 473-foot Clipper, a World War II transport and attack ship, 13 years ago at a depth of 132 feet.

“We’re pretty excited about being able to reef around the Clipper, and we really would like to put about 5,000 tons out there,” Glick said. “There’s kind of like an optimal minimum amount that makes a difference.”

It’s all about creating shelter against predators so little fish can grow into big fish, to be caught by amateur and pro anglers alike, which translates into economic development for places with such resources. Alabama, with just 3.7% of the Gulf coastline, built a huge artificial reef that according to multiple studies generates between 37% and 47% of the Gulf’s red snapper catch each year and $50 million to $70 million in total annual economic impact for the state, Glick said.

Support crew members make final preparations before sending a former shrimp boat to the bottom on Nov. 15 as part of the RGV Reef artificial reefing project, which started in 2015 and is boosting game fish populations off South Padre Island. (Photo courtesy of Life Signs Photography)

“We can get close to that,” he said.

The most recent estimate is that RGV Reef generates 240,000 baby fish a year, while anecdotal evidence from charter boat captains points to a big increase in the number of red snapper, Glick said.

“We made a major increase in the amount of nursery reef and have come up with a design that is much more durable, and the huge bump in the number of shorts, undersized fish, was apparent to everybody that fishes the reef this past year,” he said.

“The charter boat captains out there all want to help, and so we’re going to institute a tagging program starting in 2021 for these snapper so that we can better understand their growth rates, their life cycles, how many move off the reef, how many stay on the reef, how fast they grow, all of these things.”

Friends plans to conduct the tagging study in partnership with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and is looking to fund graduate students — and smart phone — to keep track of the data, Glick said.

RGV Reef has been built at about a 10th of the cost of a normal reefing contract using donated “materials of opportunity” and even factoring in the high cost of transporting the materials offshore. But it all stops without donations. Friends welcomes “minnow and whale” sized contributions alike, and donors can be assured their dollars will go far thanks to the project’s cost efficiency, Glick said.

“We’ve got two more shrimp boats to name,” he said.

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