Thursday, May 31, 2007

Diver-led group seeks support for artificial reef project


May 24, 2007

MOREHEAD, North Carolina -- The so-called "Graveyard of the Atlantic" can expect a few more guests. But unlike the ships and vessels that sank off North Carolina's coast because of storms and war, an effort is under way to promote tourism by purposely sinking ships so they'll become artificial reefs.

Such reefs would attract scuba divers, sport fishing enthusiasts, and researchers who can examine "underwater universities," supporters said.

The Eastern Carolina Artificial Reef Association (ECARA) has already received a donated barge and a sailboat for that purpose. Now, the group and its supporters want to sink a large decommissioned destroyer, cruiser, or other military ship on the ocean floor.

They're eyeing a location offshore near the existing reef created by the sunken USS Aeolus, a Navy cable layer, and the Spar, a former Coast Guard cutter.

"We are actively engaged in trying to get a large reef, a large ship, on the bottom," said Bill Thompson, a member of the nonprofit group.

But the path from obtaining a ship to sinking it can be long and expensive because of required cleaning, permits, insurance, and the rising cost for metal from decommissioned military vessels.

"These are all things involved. This is a very complicated process," said Jim Francesconi, artificial reef coordinator for the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, which backs the idea.

The association, along with the North Carolina Artificial Reef Coalition, divers, sport fishing groups, and others have united behind the project and are launching a fundraising campaign.

Reefmakers Inc., a team of specialists who help locals sink ships for artificial reefs, recently pitched the idea as a benefit to the economy and environment.

"Tourism is the world's largest industry, and ecotourism is the fastest-growing segment of that industry," said ship wrecker Joe Weatherby.

Carteret County's dive shops, charter boats, restaurants, hotels, and existing tourism stops, including the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, also would benefit, said Dave Inscoe, executive director of the nonprofit Carteret County Economic Development Council.

"I see this as a real potential as a product for tourism," he said. "It's very important for the community to have those products and things for people to see."



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