Artificial reef project targets snapper population

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND — A large-scale artificial-reefing project to substantially boost the local red snapper population is making strides.

The project has received additional backing from the Coastal Conservation Association Texas and CCA’s national habitat program, Building Conservation Trust.

The Rio Grande Valley Reef project, which will eventually cover 1,650 acres in Texas state waters roughly 14 nautical miles north of the South Padre Island jetties and 8 miles offshore, received $55,000 for 2017 in addition to $200,000 CCA and BCT have already put into the project.

Gary Glick, president of Friends of RGV Reef, which is spearheading the project, said the funding is used to transport reef materials to the site and that the organization owes CCA and BCT “a great debt of gratitude” for the support.

Friends of RGV Reef sank two derelict boats in November at the reef site with help from CCA and BCT, the Texas International Fishing Tournament and others. The sunken boats serve as “high-relief” reef, meant to attract large fish. Awaiting deployment at the Port of Brownsville are 3,000 tons of large concrete structures — box culverts, drain pipe, highway dividers, whole and in pieces — donated by Foremost Paving Inc. and to be used for mid-relief reef.

Glick said the project wouldn’t be possible without the port’s donation of a lease adjacent to the ship channel, with easy barge access, for the storage of reef material. It includes 20 truckloads of concrete roof tiles donated by the city of McAllen that Glick thinks will make quality habitat for baby red snapper. Watermill Express also donated several steel-reinforced concrete water-kiosk shells.

“What we’re short of now is pieces of concrete that are from six inches to five feet, broken concrete,” Glick said. “It’s that nice rugged stuff that we can add to all of this high-relief reef to flesh out its rugosity. I need people to give me their broken, clean concrete.”

In marine science, “rugosity” refers to small variations in the roughness of the seafloor — the more the better in terms of fish habitat. The piles of concrete material stored at the port are due for sinking in mid-May, along with some 200 tons of 2- to 6-inch limestone rubble, Glick said.

He met recently with a group of marine science experts to discuss a planned collaborative study at the reef site to determine optimum low-relief habitat for baby red snapper.

At the meeting were Richard Kline, assistant professor of biology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley; Jay Rooker, professor and endowed chair of marine biology, Texas A&M University at Galveston; Dale Shively, leader of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Artificial Reefing Program; R.J. David Wells, TAMU-Galveston assistant professor of marine biology; and Michael Dance, TAMU-Galveston post-doctoral researcher.

Also part of study is Greg Stunz, professor of marine biology and endowed chair for Fisheries and Ocean Health at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at TAMU-Corpus Christi.

Glick said the study’s aim will be to determine the best low-relief habitat for the survivability of juvenile red snapper, a small percentage of which make it to adulthood.

“We’re also going to put down eight tons of oyster shell to see if that’s good habitat for them, and a similar amount of about 3-inch rock and see where they do the best,” he said. “With only high-relief reef you’re not growing any fish, you’re just attracting fish. We think we’re going to grow a lot of babies.”

The RGV Reef Project, meanwhile, is attracting some of the best scientific talent in the field because “this is the place to be” in terms of research, Glick said.

“We’ve got a nice bottom and clear water, and in the entire northern Gulf the densest sampling of juvenile red snapper is between Port Isabel and the Aransas jetties,” he said. “That’s the densest bunch of juvenile snapper from here to Florida in the northern Gulf.”