SOUTH PADRE ISLAND — Out in the Gulf of Mexico, an area that was once bare and described as being as flat as a pancake has transformed into a flourishing artificial reef created from deployed boats, vessels, concrete rail ties and massive cinder blocks.

For the past several years, Friends of RGV Reef has been creating graduating stepping stones of reef habitat to provide shelter and aid to fish populations along their lifecycle.

Yesterday morning, Friends of RGV Reef members traveled to the Brownsville ship channel to track progress being made at their 1,650-acre reef site that was donated by the Port of Brownsville.

RGV Reef members were at sea for about six hours surveying the reefs’ fish populations by using sonar devices and dropping a few lines to see the size of the fish in the area.

Curtis Hayungs, an RGV Reef board member, said RGV Reef is the largest reef off the Texas Coast and contains the first industrial scale reef in the Gulf of Mexico.

“I’m the one that does all of the diving so I’ve really been able to see the progress over the past couple of years,” Hayungs said.

When Friends of RGV Reef sunk their first boat a few years ago, 10 cameras were mounted on it.

“I went back to retrieve the cameras and counted more than 15 species of fish and probably more than 20,000 fish in just two weeks,” he recalled. “Prior to that, there was nothing in sight and the reason for that is from where everybody hangs out on the beach, to about 60 miles straight out into the middle of the ocean, it’s basically an underwater dessert.”

Hayungs said the artificial reef provides a safe haven for fish, especially small ones that are frequently hunted by larger predators.

“The reason it’s been so successful and unique is that we’re basically creating an industrial scale reef,” Hayungs explained. “And what that means is, we’re creating small, medium and large reefs for each sized fish. So, when the fish get larger, they’ll graduate to the larger reef.”

According to Hayungs, once the fish reach a certain size, they start moving up the current north toward Port Mansfield, Corpus Christi and surrounding Gulf Coast areas.

Looking ahead

Hayungs said RGV Reef plans to start phase II of their project next year.

“We’re creating a 500-foot-long, 40-foot-tall ridge along the ocean floor,” Hayungs explained. “That’s going to create an upwelling of nutrients and food, which is basically the beginning of the whole food chain.”

The nonprofit plans to deploy more than 9 million pounds of donated concrete railroad ties.

“When you bring in these little nutrients, you bring in the small bait fish,” Hayungs said. “Then when you bring in the bait fish, you can bring in bigger fish that attract predatory pelagic fish and reef fish. So, that’s the beginning of the life cycle and that’s what we’re really going to focus on next year.”

MORE INFO

What is Friends of RGV Reef?

Friends of RGV Reef is a nonprofit comprised of recreational, commercial and charter fishermen, scuba divers and marine biologists with contractors, businessmen and ranchers who strive to create a self-sustaining artificial reef 13 miles northeast of the South Padre Island jetties that will help increase fish populations.