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New Jersey Scuba Diving


New Jersey Scuba Diving

Bill Figley - NJ's Artificial Reef Guy

Bill Figley

Fisherman Profile by Jim Munroe

Editor's Note: the New Jersey fishing community owes a world of gratitude to Bill Figley for his tireless service on behalf of recreational angling in the state. Considered the patriarch of the artificial reef program, his model of excellence created over two decades in New Jersey has since been emulated by other states along the East Coast.

While many of us were nervous to learn of Bill's retirement - as in, "Who's going to fill that guy's shoes?" the best news is that our state's reef mentor has left the program in very capable hands, with Bill's protege Hugh Carberry. The entire staff at the Fisherman offers sincere thanks to Bill for so many great things, and an enthusiastic welcome aboard to Hugh - and his new shoes!

- JH

The first artificial reefs in New Jersey were built off Cape May in the 1930s by party and charter boat owners to help with their fishing. "There wasn't a very intensive effort though" said Bill Figley, the recently retired Reef Coordinator for the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife. "The most extensive private operation was off Sea Girt, and this was done in the 1960s and 1970s, by the Artificial Reef Committee, who was composed of a group of charter boat captains, as well as the National Marine Fisheries Service."

"Some of the biologists up at Sandy Hook Marine Lab were investigating the possibility of building ocean reefs, " Bill explained, "The State of New Jersey got interested in reef building in 1984, and we began a program. Then we took over all of the permits held by private entities and incorporated them into a state run program." Figley noted "We used a $450,000 grant from the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generation Station to actually kick that program off and give us the seed money that was necessary to begin the program."

Bill was actually the second person to head the program. "We had another biologist work on the program for about a six-month period, and then he decided to quit and go on to another profession, and I ended up just inheriting the program from him." Bill added that he had worked the program a bit with him in the past, and explained, "I guess I was the natural person to select to run it at that point in time."


I had the opportunity of interviewing Mr. Figley on his last day on the job, and we didn't get done until right before he was done for the day. I think that shows what he is made of.

When asked about the hardest part of the program, Bill answered that there were many difficult parts, raising money for the program perhaps hardest of all. "The government does not pay for the actual reef construction. The money to build the reefs has to be generated either from the companies that are donating materials, or from fishing and diving clubs, and other marine industries, to pay for the cost of cleaning and preparing and sinking materials."

"Some of the other tough things, of course, are getting permits to allow us to construct reefs out in the ocean, " he added, explaining that permits must be obtained from the Army Corps of Engineers, which gets more difficult because of the many competing uses. "You have commercial fishing interests, you have sand mining, pipelines, communication cable crossings, shipping, there are a lot of interests that are using the ocean for a variety of reasons, and they all compete, in one way or another, with the Reef Program."

In terms of what's worked best in the program, Figley listed many great findings during his time at the helm. "The nice thing about marine life in temperate waters is that just about any hard surface or substrate that you put in the ocean will work about the same. We found that marine life will colonize rock, concrete, steel, and rubber in about the same abundance, so that marine life off our coast is very accommodating." He added that this is what has really led to the success of the program, the fact that "Marine life is willing to colonize just about any material we put down there."


"One of the frustrating parts of building reefs is working against the forces of the ocean. It's a very harsh environment, and it tends to try to destroy whatever reef you put out there." Figley explained that in the case of metal surfaces, you have corrosive forces of the sea that try to disintegrate the metal parts that you would have on a subway car, an army tank or a ship. "Even big ships that are well-constructed will eventually start to be broken down by storm activity."

He added that another problem is the constant movement of sand due to wave action, especially during storms that will scour around the base of any structure causing that structure to sink into the sand. Even very heavy inert objects like concrete and rock that can basically last forever tend to sink into the sand and disappear at the reefs. "Once they disappear, of course, their value as a reef is diminished or lost" he said.


According to Bill Figley, the species that perhaps benefited the most from the artificial reef program are those that fishermen don't really think about, the invertebrates. "Especially the ones that attach to a surface. These are called encrusting organisms or fouling organisms" which Figley laughs are the same organisms that grow on the bottom of your boat if you should forgo the bottom painting process during your spring boat prep.

"There are probably a dozen species, these would include mussels, barnacles, hydroids, sponges, bryozoans, animals that actually grow on the surface of a reef. And we've found that these invertebrates make up about 85 percent of all of the marine life that is found on a reef. Of those, blue mussels are by far the most important species" which Figley said make up 60 percent of all marine life on a reef.

"Within a living carpet that forms on reef structures by these encrusting organisms, you have over 100 species of mobile invertebrates, such as crabs, shrimp, snails, worms, urchins, starfish, isopods, things like that. They make up about 11 or 12 percent of the biomass or weight of all marine life on the reef. That only leaves about 3 or 4 percent of the biomass actually being fish that anglers are interested in, " he continued.

Bill Figley
Bill Figley, newly retired Reef Coordinator for the New jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife, looks back on 22 years and 140 ship sinkings off the coast of New Jersey.


Because invertebrates form the basis of the food chain, Figley noted that the reefs offer a very healthy environment. "Fish, of course, need a great deal of food to sustain themselves, and in the case of the reef, we found that these structures actually do have this large amount of invertebrate life or food available to fish that anglers are interested in."

In terms of those primary species on the list for anglers, black sea bass, blackfish or tautog, in addition to porgies in the fall and triggerfish in the summer. "They get some cod and pollock on the deep water wrecks, and then one of the most important fish now is actually the summer flounder or fluke, which doesn't actually live on the reef structures, but use them as feeding areas, because of the abundance of food on the reef structures, " he elaborated.


"Okay, well there is a lot that should be done. One, we have to come up with some stable or continuous source of funding. It's very expensive to build reefs, and a dependable annual source of income would be an excellent way to address that problem, " Figley said. He also added that he'd like to see the state be able to acquire some of the big navy ships now becoming available in limited number. "They are either going to be scrapped or sunk as reefs, and the State of New Jersey would like to get a couple of them to sink off our coast."

In order to determine how well the reefs are meeting the program objectives, or if they're not, Figley also hopes to see more data collection in the future. "Both the socio-economic aspects of reefs, which would include fishing statistics, and how many people are fishing on the reefs." Bill said, explaining that biological questions need to be answered to determine how effective the reefs are. "We need this type of information to really assess whether the reefs are meeting the program objectives or not."


"What we have done is established a network of 15 artificial reef sites that stretch from Sandy Hook down to Cape May. Over the past 22 years, we've built a total of 3,600 patch reefs totaling over 7 million cubic yards of material, " Bill listed, adding "I think that we occupy a little over 3 percent of the 25 square miles of sea floor, that we are permitted, actually covered with reef material. So we have a long way to go, even in 22 years, we have been able to do 3 1/2 percent of that permitted area."

Figley said a 2000 fishing survey found that anglers caught 4.8 million fish on or around the reef sites, which amounts to one of every five fish caught in all of New Jersey marine waters. "This gives you an idea how tremendously important these fishing areas are to fishermen, " Bill said, adding "About 60 percent of all recreational scuba diving occurs on the reef sites now."

The reefs are comprised of 140 different ships and barges, 397 obsolete army tanks, 250 New York City subway cars, and thousands of concrete reef ball habitats. "The material that we use most is dredge rock from New York Harbor, and that makes up over 90 percent of all the material that we put out, " he summarized.


In wrapping up my interview with Bill Figley, I asked the outgoing reef director for the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife about his future plans. "I am going to do some work with my wife, a day or two a week not much. I will probably do a little bit of writing for the Fisherman Magazine possibly. I have a lot of hobbies. I like to fish, I like to duck hunt, deer hunt, clam, crab, boat, take photographs, and I also do some fish carving. I also like to travel, so I think that I'll have plenty to do. I'm looking forward to it." Obviously, for those associated with the Fisherman Magazine, we're looking forward to your first "little bit of writing."


The recently retired reef director said that New Jersey was fortunate that former Director of Fish and Game, Marty McHugh saw fit to actually put another person to work directly with Bill over his final six months in the position, making for an easy transition. "As I retired, he could simply assume my responsibilities, and have the past experience to do this rather than coming in absolutely fresh."

"It's a type of program that takes a lot of practical experience to understand what to do and what not to do, and making mistakes out in the ocean are the last thing we want to do. So, having Hugh in here for the last six months, he's gotten to see the operation." Bill believes that Hugh has to learn what to do and what not to do, and should be able to jump into his new position and run with it without fear of making mistakes.

"We learned from the mistakes that we made in the past, " Figley said, adding "I look forward to him doing a very good job. He's done a good job in the six months he has been here, and I think he enjoys what he is doing. He has the desire to do the work, and I think that's the most important part of the job."

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NJF Publishing Corporation
Main Office
14 Ramsey Rd
Shirley NY 11967

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