Byline: Taylor Hill
DANA POINT — Plans to create an artificial reef off Dana Point by sinking a decommissioned Navy ship have been set off course, as the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) withdrew the ship from a list of vessels considered suitable for reefing.
For the past three years, California Ships to Reefs — a volunteer organization that creates artificial reefs from decommissioned warships — had been working on getting the 655-foot Navy ship Kawishiwi sunk 1.5 miles south of Dana Point Harbor, hoping to create new fish and marine life habitat area, and a diving destination.
But new rules laid out by MARAD in June doomed the Kawishiwi reefing project before it could get started, because the retired fleet oiler currently docked in the Navy’s Suisun Bay “Ghost Fleet” does not meet the new ship requirements.
In a statement released May 31, MARAD explained its new rules for ship reefing, which now exclude from consideration all vessels likely to contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) — chemicals widely used in insulation for ship transformers, capacitors and electric motors.
The move marks a reversal of fortune for California Ships to Reefs and its chairman, Joel Geldin, who had received approval on Kawishiwi from both California Department of Fish and Game officials and MARAD last year. With the environmental concerns of sinking a ship that may contain polluting materials at the heart of the issue, MARAD’s new guidelines have committed all vessels containing PCBs to a ship recycling program.
“It’s a setback, but our organization looks at progress in generational terms — and we’re working on moving forward, with a new ship in our sights,” Geldin said.
With Kawishiwi no long an option, Suisun Bay’s decommissioned fleet has only one ship remaining that is PCB-free and still capable of being used as an artificial reef under MARAD’s new guidelines. The ship, USS Willamette, is a more recent-vintage fleet oiler, and California Ships to Reefs has already begun working on getting the vessel approved for reefing at the previous Kawishiwi site.
“It’s disappointing that we won’t be able to use the Kawishiwi,” said Ron Springer, project leader for California Ships to Reef’s Dana Point reefing site. “But, on the other hand, Willamette will require less work to prepare for sinking.
“It’s also a little longer, which is exciting to me,” Springer added. “I hope MARAD and Fish and Game can work with us to get this project done.”
With the new rules in place, the future of California Ships to Reefs as an organization has come into question, as few ships currently remain as viable reefing options. In a recent statement, the organization changed its stated mission, moving from a ship-based reefing program to broadening its scope to include other artificial reef options.
“CSTR’s mission to create new ocean life along the California coastline continues,” Geldin said. “We will pursue other opportunities for reefing, whether they are ship-based or using other materials, such as our rigs-to-reefs program.”
At a Newport Beach City Council meeting July, Geldin outlined the group’s plan to move forward with creating a network of reefs along California’s coastline that will bring environmental, ecological and economic benefits to waterside communities.
In 2000, the organization successfully created a reef with the 366-foot Royal Canadian Navy destroyer Yukon off Mission Bay, which Geldin said brings in $4.5 million per year, with more than 10,800 divers visiting the site annually — bringing boat charter business, hotel business and more revenue to the region.
At the meeting in Newport Beach, Geldin highlighted locations in Newport Beach, Redondo Beach and Santa Monica for possible ship reef sites. He is currently looking for support from local cities and agencies, to gain momentum at these locations.
In addition to the ship reefing work, California Ships to Reefs has been working with Dana Point officials on creating artificial reef sites out of the 1,200 pier pilings that are scheduled to be removed in the Dana Point Harbor Revitalization Plan.
“We have not let go of our goal to have ship-based ree?ng in California,” Geldin said. “We have already requested the one ship available to us from MARAD, and we will continue to seek non-naval vessels. Now, we will also bring other arti?cial ree?ng projects to our forefront.
“This isn’t new,” he added. “We already support ree?ng projects using non-ship materials, such as the Dana Point Harbor Pilings Project. We intend to build on these efforts.”