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New Jersey Scuba Diving


New Jersey Scuba Diving

New Jersey Artificial Reefs Overview

HRFA reef

Objectives of the Reef Program

New Jersey's Reef Program is administered by the Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Fish and Wildlife. The objectives of the program are to construct hard-substrate "reef" habitat in the ocean for certain species of fish and shellfish, new fishing grounds for anglers and underwater structures for scuba divers.

In constructing and managing reefs, the goal is to spread the benefits of reef resources to as many people as possible. The intent of the program is not to change New Jersey's marine environment, but rather to enhance a small portion, less than 1 percent of the sea floor, to benefit 150 species of marine life that prefer structured habitat.

Benefits Derived From Artificial Reefs

How Reef Structures Benefit Marine Life

Surface Area

In the ocean, the surface area of a habitat is very important because it represents the interface between the surface upon which an animal lives and its exposure to the water column where it feeds and respires. The sandy sea floor is two dimensional and has a relative surface area of 1. Three-dimensional reef structures, on the other hand, have height and thus more living area for the same relative unit of sea floor that they occupy.

Reef Benefits

A human analogy would be a comparison between the floor space of a ranch house and that of a high-rise apartment building, both occupying the same footprint on the ground. The taller and more complicated a structure, the more surface area is available for marine life to colonize and consequently, the more productive it can be.

Reef Benefits - Firm, Stable SubstrateFirm, Stable Substrate

Unlike sand that is constantly shifting, reef structures provide firm, stable substrates for the attachment of marine life. Once anchored in place on a reef structure, marine life can withstand strong ocean currents and storms.

Reef Benefits - Habitat DiversityHabitat Diversity

Reef structures add a third component to New Jersey's marine environment, which now consists of sandy sea floor and water column habitats. The more diverse an environment, the more options are available to marine life and thus, the greater the diversity of species living there.

Reef Benefits - RefugeRefuge

The nooks and crevices of reef structures provide hiding places for juvenile and adult fish and other marine life to avoid predation.

Reef Benefits - Reduced EnergyReduced Energy

The diffusion of currents by reef structures provides calm water, resting areas for fish, much like a boulder provides relief for a trout in a stream. Thus, the energy that would otherwise have been wasted upon swimming against the current can be better put towards growth.

Reef Benefits - TurbulenceTurbulence

The deflection of currents by reef structures can result in the creation of eddies that concentrate plankton, a prime food source for young fish. Schools of planktivorous fish often concentrate in these feeding zones.

Reef Benefits - Increased BiomassIncreased Biomass

The increased biomass ( weight of marine life ) associated with reef structures provides a ready source of food for fish and other marine life.

Study Reveals Reefs Enhance New Jersey's Marine Environment

By Bill Figley, Principal Fisheries Biologist

Results from a recent reef colonization study conducted from 1996 to present by the Division of Fish and Wildlife indicate that New Jersey reefs support hundreds of times more marine life than the sandy sea floor. The study wa5 conducted to determine the types and amounts of marine life that colonize ocean reefs and to compare those levels with what is normally found on the sandy bottom, It was an attempt to answer the question: Do reefs produce marine life or simply attract it?

Reef StudyThe study began in 1996 when 30 experimental reef habitats were placed on the Barnegat Light Reef Site. Each habitat consisted of a 3' x 1' x 1' plastic-coated wire box embedded in a concrete base. The boxes were filled with a variety of materials to imitate the hiding places found on reefs and to duplicate common reef-building materials. Each box contained 10 corrugated fiberglass panels, 50 whelk shells ( large snails ) and eight plates of four common, reef-building materials: steel, concrete, rock and tire rubber.

Over the past five years, scuba divers retrieved a total of 10 habitats from the ocean reef site. The divers encapsulated each habitat in a plastic drum to capture all of the marine life inside. After each year's collection, Fish and Wildlife biologists spent four months in the lab removing, sorting, counting, identifying and weighing the marine life living within the experimental habitats. What they found was impressive. Over 145 species of marine life, including fish, crabs, shrimp, lobster, mussels, barnacles, starfish, urchins, snails, worms, sponges, anemones - and many more - had colonized the small, experimental habitats.

Biologists estimate that a one-square meter area of reef habitat is home to 432,022 individual marine organisms. In an area the size of a card table, the reef provided homes for 118,651 mussels, 29,310 barnacles, 4,626 anemones, 16,626 worms, 2,349 urchins, 3,545 crabs, 22 lobster and 133 young fish less than four inches long. In addition, the habitat also was colonized by colonial encrusting organisms such as stone coral, bryozoans, hydroids and sponges, that could not be enumerated, but collectively accounted for hundreds of thousands of organisms. These experimental habitats have the population of a city in a microcosm. The total biomass of all these organisms amounted to 129 pounds. Biomass is a biologist's measure of the weight of all the organisms living in a particular habitat. In this study, biomass referred to the weight of all marine life inhabiting a square meter of sea floor.

Reef StudyThe Division also collected 60, one-foot-square samples of the sandy sea floor near the Cape May Reef. A similar area ( square meter ) of sandy sea floor naturally has only about 2.5 ounces of marine life. Thus, on an equal area basis, reef habitats have 825 times more biomass than the sandy bottom. Reef structures are three-dimensional and thus, offer more attachment surfaces for marine life growth than the two-dimensional sea floor. Also, the firm substrate of a reef structure enables encrusting organisms to withstand storms which stir up the sand bottom. The numerous crevices and holes of a reef offer fish, crabs and other mobile animals secure places to hide from predators.

The increased biomass of the reef habitat is significant because it represents a far greater food source for ocean predators. The study revealed that marine life populations on the habitats which were exposed to predation. were reduced by over 45 percent due to feeding by fish, crabs, lobster and starfish. The investigation also demonstrated that there were no significant differences in the colonization of various reef materials: concrete, steel, rock and tire rubber. Apparently, mussels, barnacles and other encrusting organisms are not discriminating, they just require something firm upon which to attach. Manmade materials ( concrete, steel, rubber ) are just as productive as natural rock.

New Jersey reefs are colonized entirely by marine animals. The depths on reef sites, generally over 60 feet, are too great for the penetration of sufficient light to sustain plant growth. Instead of plants, the foundation of the reef food-web consists of many species of filter feeding animals that live attached to reef structures and feed by straining the plankton carried past them by ocean currents. Filter feeders ( i.e. mussels, barnacles, tubeworms and others ) are in turn eaten by fish, crabs and lobsters. Stationary filter feeders serve another function on the reef by providing a carpet of cover or hiding place for small mobile invertebrates such as shrimp, snails and worms. These animals also may become food for larger predators that comprise this trophic web.

The goal of building reefs, which provide firm, stable substrate for the attachment of marine organisms, is to enhance the biological productivity of the sea floor. Based on the results of this study, reefs do enhance New Jersey's marine environment. By providing new homes for fish and shellfish, reefs also create new fishing grounds for anglers and interesting attractions for scuba divers.

These articles first appeared in New Jersey Reef News - 2000 - 2003

How Are Reef Sites Selected?

Why don't you build a reef here?Every fisherman has his favorite fishing area and thinks that it would be the perfect spot for an artificial reef. "Why don't you build a reef here?" they ask.

Obviously, the State could never satisfy every New Jersey angler with his own pet reef. Besides that, there are many constraints that limit both the number and location of ocean reef sites. New Jersey now has a network of 15 reef sites, evenly spaced from Sandy Hook to Cape May. In its original plan, the Reef Program estimated that 14 or 15 sites would be needed to provide access to anglers and divers from every New Jersey inlet.

A permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is required for each reef site. Obtaining permits is a difficult, time-consuming and expensive process. An Environmental Assessment must be prepared for each site. The selection of the sites is actually a process of mapping areas of the sea floor where reefs cannot be constructed due to conflicting uses of the area, such as pipelines, telephone cables, sand mining, shipping lane and commercial trawling and dredging grounds. The Corps will not issue a reef permit for an ocean area that is currently used for other purposes.

Other constraints that reduce the ocean bottom available for reef construction include: water depth ( 50 feet of clearance over reef structures is required to allow for ship navigation, ) muddy or silty bottom, where reef structures would sink, and areas of low or high biological productivity. Reefs should not be placed in areas that have a history of low oxygen levels for this would only result in periodic kills of reef life. Highly productive areas should be avoided as well; not much would be gained by placing an artificial reef on an existing natural reef, like the Shrewsbury Rocks, or on a traditionally proven fishing ground like Barnegat Ridge.

Once the areas unsuitable for reefs are mapped, potential sites for reefs are selected within the remaining sea floor. To avoid the problem of conflicting uses, old reef sites that were originally chosen and permitted by party and charter boat associations, some as early as 1935, were permitted and re-activated by the State. Reef sites initially permitted by private groups include Sandy Hook, Sea Girt, Axel Carlson, Garden State South, Atlantic City, Ocean City, Wildwood, and Cape May. Only six previously-unpermitted sites were selected by the State. Before these sites were chosen, local party and charter boat captains, including both fishermen and divers, were consulted to determine the best possible locations. Such inquiries yielded locations for the Shark River, Barnegat Light, Garden State North, Little Egg, Great Egg and Deepwater reefs.

At this point in time, the Division does not plan to apply for any new reef sites, but instead will put all of its energy into developing the 15 sites already permitted - a big enough job in itself.

Why Do We Build Reefs the Way We Do?

Over the years, our reef-building tactics have been challenged by fishermen through comments like: don't put that concrete on top of good structure; don't spread out tire units, pile them up, it's easier to fish on; why don't you sink some ships on the Sandy Hook Reef? Believe it or not, there are well-thought out strategies behind our reef- building efforts. Let's examine some of them.

M551 tank reef
A barge-load of M-551 Sheridans awaits disposal.

Overall, our reef network is designed to maximize the benefits of the materials that are available to us for reef construction. The primary criteria that determine what materials are placed on a reef are depth and distance from the ports of New York or Philadelphia. Reef site depth dictates the height of the structure that can be sunk there. For example, we cannot sink a large ship with a 50-foot high superstructure on the Sea Girt Reef, which is only 70 ft deep, but must move offshore to the Shark River Reef where depths are sufficient, over 125 ft. Large concrete demolition projects originate in the ports of New York and Philadelphia. Distance to a reef site is the major factor in determining if reef deployment is a cost-effective alternative for contractors. Consequently, Sandy Hook and Cape May reefs, the closest sites to major ports, have received most of the demolition debris used to build reefs. Sandy Hook Reef receives so much rock and concrete that it is unnecessary to sink other structures there when they are needed more for mid-coast reefs.

Recognizing that reefs in the mid-section of the state are outside of the range of demolition contractors, we have targeted these sites for concrete-ballasted tire units, army tanks and small vessels. With many reef deployments dependent upon limited funds available from donations, we have attempted to divide materials among reef sites as equitably as possible.

With concrete or other dense materials that tend to sink into the sea floor, we try to pile such structure on top of itself to ensure that some is left protruding from the sand. This is why we may focus drops from 10 or 20 barge-loads of concrete on one spot. Twenty years from now, concrete slabs will still project up from a foundation of other concrete that has since subsided into the sandy sea floor.

Side-scan sonar image of a single drop of dredge rock from a split hopper barge
Side-scan sonar image of a single drop of dredge rock from a split hopper barge.

Concrete rubble
Concrete rubble is placed on the Sandy Hook Reef.

Concrete rubble side-scan

In contrast, less dense materials, such as concrete-ballasted tire units that tend to rest on the surface of the ocean bottom, are spread out across the sea floor. Since the quantity of marine life is dependent upon the amount of surface area of the structure, dispersed tire units will have more surface area and consequently, a greater population of fish than the same number of units placed in a pile. Spacing helps both fish and fishermen. A party boat anchored on a tire unit pile can catch many of the fish there in one or two trips. Spread out units will sustain greater fishing effort and provide good catches over a longer period of time.

A successful strategy has been to design reef sites with separate anchor and drift areas. The former area consisting of vessels or tanks; the latter of spread-out tire units. This feature reduces conflicts between anglers and divers and allows large numbers of inexperienced wreck fishermen to use drift areas where finding and anchoring on specific structures is unnecessary.

A new strategy that we hope to soon implement is the deployment of widely-spaced refuge / juvenile habitats. Such structures will be small, fabricated out of concrete and designed to benefit juvenile fish and shellfish. They will be randomly distributed at a low density of only 1 or 2 habitats per acre of sea floor, too spread out for use by anglers or divers. Their objective, however, will be to produce fish for future harvest.

The volume and area of reef structures placed on NJ Reefs through 2000

The volume and area of reef structures placed on NJ Reefs through 2000

Cost of Building Reefs

According to a survey conducted by the Division in 1993 and 1994, an average of $2.2 million is expended annually to construct and manage New Jersey's ocean reefs. The management portion of the project, which includes the salaries of State marine biologists who select reef sites, coordinate construction activities, and conduct biological and harvest surveys, and the costs of operating a research vessel and sampling equipment, amounts to approximately $215,000 each year. Funding for management is composed of $161,000 in federal Sportfish Restoration Funds, which are obtained from excise taxes on recreational fishing tackle, and $54,000 in state funding.

ARAEach year, an average of $1,978,000 in reef construction costs are donated from a variety of sources. The preparation, cleaning and towing of ships and barges destined for the reefs is paid for by vessel donors and by donations from anglers and divers; average annual expenses for sinking vessels was $98,000. Reef deployment of rock dredged from New York Harbor by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers amounted to $228,000 annually. Concrete from the demolition of piers/bridges and industrial complexes is barged to the reefs by demolition contractors at a cost of $948,000. The construction and deployment of concrete-ballasted tire units are undertaken by Ocean and Cape May counties at a cost of $343,000 each year; a private corporation spends $335,000 annually. Army tanks cleaned at Fort Dix by the New Jersey Army National Guard are deployed on reefs at the military's expense, for about $26,000 annually.

During 1993 and 1994, a total of 223 reefs were constructed at an average cost of $20,000 per reef. Using this figure, the total cost of building all of the reefs now available to New Jersey fishermen and divers was about $20 million ( 1,015 reefs between 1984 and 1996. )

Donations from anglers and divers have enabled us to sink dozens of ships and barges and are critical to the success of the Reef Program

Average Annual New Jersey Reef
Program Costs During 1993 and 1994


Funding Source

Average Cost

Mgt / Research:

Preparing / Deploying:

Ships & Barges
Dredge Rock
Tire Units
Army Vehicles

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

All Sources


$2, 193,000

New Jersey's Recreational Reef Fishery

Fisherman reefThe Creation of a Marine Resource

New Jersey's reefs have come a long way in the past fifteen years. Prior to 1984, Sea Girt was the only active reef site off the Jersey coast and that site only had a half-dozen reef structures. Since then, the Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Fish and Wildlife developed a network of 14 reef sites, stretching from Sandy Hook to Cape May, and constructed over 1,300 fishing and diving reefs on these sites.

New Jersey anglers caught 48 million
fish on ocean reefs in 2000

Both fish and fishermen have responded to this effort by the State. Considering only fishing trips for bottom species, such as sea bass, tautog and porgy, artificial reefs accounted for only 7 percent of the private and 3 percent of the party boat trips in 1970; with only a few artificial reefs in existence, the vast majority of bottom fishing occurred on the hundreds of shipwrecks sunk by storms, accidents and wars along the Jersey coast. In 1991, following initial reef construction efforts, use of artificial reefs rose to 42 percent of the private and 20 percent of the party boat bottom fishing activity. By 2000, following extensive reef building, reefs dominated the bottom fishing action, with 90 percent of private and 47 percent of party boat trips targeting bottom species occurring on reefs created by the Division. In other words, for anglers seeking bottom species like sea bass and tautog, private boat captains went to reefs 9 out of 10 trips and party boat captains preferred reefs 1 out of every 2 trips.

Fisherman reefNew Jersey's recreational wreck / reef fishing fleet now consists of 5,401 private, 240 charter and 64 party boats. During the course of the 2000 fishing season, one-third of a million angler-trips targeted wreck / reef species throughout the State's ocean waters. In 2000, these boats caught an estimated 7.9 million wreck/reef fishes, with 4.8 million of these being taken on our 14 ocean reef sites. The most important species in the catch was sea bass (5.6 million), followed by porgy (0.5 million), tautog (0.4 million) and fluke (0.3 million); 25 other species were caught in smaller numbers.

Fortunately, about 56 percent (4.4 million) of the fish caught were released alive. This season was marked by an outstanding run of sea bass that were represented by several strong year classes. For private boats, the Garden State North (28 fish/angler), Sandy Hook (24), Wildwood (23) and Atlantic City (21) reefs produced the best daily catches (includes kept and released, ) while Shark River (7), Great Egg (10) and Ocean City (13) reefs had the lowest catch rates. The catch rate for bottom fishing on wrecks not on reef sites was 24 fish per angler. National recreational fishing surveys estimated the State's total catch of all saltwater species averaged about 27 million fish annually during 1979-1999. Thus, the reefs accounted for 18 percent of all of the fish caught in Our state's salt waters.

Fisherman reefIn other words roughly 2 out of every 11 fish caught along the Jersey shore during 2000 were caught on a reef built by the Division of Fish and Wildlife. This is a particularly amazing statistic given the fact that reef sites only comprise 0.3 percent of New Jersey's sea floor. "This survey demonstrates the importance of artificial reefs, " said Bob McDowell, Director of the Division of Fish and Wildlife. "The time and effort the Division has invested in developing our ocean reef network is now paying big dividends for New Jersey anglers. The Reef Program is creating a valuable new marine resource that will benefit the State's marine sport fishing industry for decades to come."

This information was collected as part of an intensive survey conducted between April and November, 2000. During this time, the Division interviewed 1,055 private and charter boat captains and 1,012 party boat anglers to obtain information about their fishing activities. We appreciate the support and cooperation of all the fishermen who participated in the study.

Scuba Diving Activities in New Jersey

In 2000, the Division of Fish and Wildlife conducted an intensive survey of reef and wreck fishing and diving activities. The results of the fishing portion of the study were reported in last year's Reef News. In comparison with angling, scuba diving in New Jersey has a much smaller number of participants, and both its harvest of marine species and consequent impact on the fisheries resources of reefs and wrecks is minimal.

Herb Segars

In 2000, New Jersey's recreational dive boat fleet consisted of an estimated 620 private and 38 charter boats. These vessels undertook a combined 2,664 dive trips in 2000, involving 19,728 divers who made 37,482 dives. Artificial reefs accounted for 62 percent of the private and 33 percent of the charter boat diving trips. The Sea Girt, Shark River and Cape May reef sites were the most popular. Sea Girt offers 23 shipwrecks, including a number of tugs used as check-out dives, in 60' to 80' depths. The Shark River Reef holds the largest reef wrecks, including the 460' USS Algol, which is frequented so often by New Jersey and New York dive boats that it is called "The Parking Lot." Shark River Reef wrecks lie in deep depths, up to 135', which require more experience from divers. The Cape May Reef provides 18 wrecks in an area of the coast that has fewer wrecks available to divers; the 157' Coast Guard buoy tender Red Oak has become the favorite dive attraction on this southern reef.

While fishermen are intent on catching fish, divers have other options available to them. Lobstering and spearfishing are important, representing 45 and 14 percent, respectively, of divers' primary interests, but observing marine life ( 18 percent ), photography ( 11 percent ) and artifact hunting ( 8 percent ) provide alternate non-consumptive activities.

While anglers caught an estimated 7.9 million fish on New Jersey wrecks and reefs during 2000, divers harvested relatively insignificant numbers ( in terms of fisheries management ) of fish and shellfish as shown in the table below.

Total estimated catch of New Jersey scuba divers in 2000

Species Unit Total Catch
Sea Bass Number 3,436
Tautog Number 5,081
Summer Flounder Number 535
Lobster Number 17,255
Mussels Pounds 32,285
Scallop Number 1,269



I make no claim as to the accuracy, validity, or appropriateness of any information found in this website. I will not be responsible for the consequences of any action that is based upon information found here. Scuba diving is an adventure sport, and as always, you alone are responsible for your own safety and well being.

Copyright © 1996-2016 Rich Galiano
unless otherwise noted



since 2016-09-11