Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Home sweet underwater home


Savannah Morning News
By Mary Landers
January 22, 2008

Fish surprise researchers with how quickly they colonize a sunken ship

A ship that once helped researchers learn about sea creatures has become a home to those same animals.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources sank the R/V Jane Yarn off the Georgia coast as an artificial reef in late August. It rests under 72 feet of water on a sandy-bottomed area called J Reef, outside Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary.

On a recent dive, sanctuary researchers were surprised to find hoards of fish had already moved in. Four barracudas, with their fierce under bites, call it home. Schools of amber jack and spadefish swarm past the port holes. Black sea bass, grunts and cigar minnows also visit.

Fish can't resist the Jane Yarn, which offers the only shelter in its neighborhood, said Greg McFall, the sanctuary's research coordinator.

"It's like finding a condo out in the desert," he said.

So they moved in fast.

"It was a surprise to see how quickly they colonized the wreck," McFall said. "To reach the capacity they already have, I thought it would take the better part of a year."

The 63-foot ship was named for Jane Hurt Yarn, a Georgia conservationist who helped convince President Jimmy Carter to designate Gray's Reef, to the east of St. Catherines Island, a sanctuary.

About three weeks after the vessel was sunk, biologist Danny Gleason inspected the new artificial reef. He saw a barracuda and a school of spadefish but little else.

The Georgia Southern University researcher is interested in seeing what creatures attach themselves to the steel-hulled vessel.

So far, the Jane Yarn is covered in acorn barnacles, so many that they obscure the ship's name.

But artificial reefs don't necessarily attract the same corals, sponges and other creatures as natural reefs, Gleason said.

"It's like how you can create a wetland, but it never functions like a natural wetland," he said.

He plans to study the succession of animals on the ship, possibly by scraping off patches of barnacles and monitoring what grows back.

"That's what interested us in the Jane Yarn," he said.

Others, including local divers and fishermen, for whom the Jane Yarn is already becoming a destination will be keeping tabs on the variety and volume of fish.

McFall called for them to be patient.

"Snapper and grouper were not there in the numbers they will be when it's established a little more," McFall said. "It might take a couple years to be fully functioning community."



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