EDITORIAL: Promoting life

Reef projects build habitat that help wildlife, economy

Environmentalists often fall into one of two primary groups — those who try to preserve pristine areas and “let nature take its course,” and those who actively work to improve or create new habitat or employ aggressive husbandry practices to benefit creatures, such as gathering up sea turtle eggs and incubating them until they can release the hatchlings.

One group in the latter category has invested years of time and effort that promises to benefit not only live within the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but also the people and economy of the Rio Grande and beyond.

Their work is paying off.

Friends of RGV Reef members recently visited a 1,650-acre artificial reef they have been building near the Brownsville Ship Channel for several years. They found it teeming with various varieties of fish and other life, in an area Friends of RGV Reef board member Curtis Hayungs said previously was “basically an underwater desert.”

Indeed, the rough currents off the coast of South Padre Island, and the sand they sweep into shore, make it difficult for aquatic life to gain an foothold in the area. Fish and dolphins can be found near the beaches, but they generally come and go with the tides or to nest and feed in the bays and estuaries protected by jetties and other structures.

Friends of RGV Reef started acquiring retired boats, pilings and other structures and dropping them into the open water to create an artificial reef. The reef breaks up waves from the sea and provides places where plants and creatures can anchor themselves and hide. They attract larger fish that feed off of them, and thus create a complete ecosystem.

It’s a feature that can benefit local aquatic life, and the area’s economy as well. Reefs, and sunken ships that comprise parts of them, become popular venues for fishing, snorkeling and scuba diving and the companies that support them by offering boating trips and diving classes and renting equipment.

Group members say the local structure is the largest reef off the Texas Coast and is the first industrial-scale reef in the Gulf of Mexico, providing habitat for aquatic species of all sizes.

Friends of RGV Reef plans to begin work on a second structure next year. Using donated concrete railroad ties, the group plans to create a 500-long, 40-foot-high wall along the sea floor to capture tiny plants and other nutrients that will attract the smallest bait fish and start the food cycle. Once established, the wall will enable the smallest sea creatures to begin life there and then transition to the larger reef.

Such sites near the coastline that are easily accessible can also become valuable laboratories for local educational institutions and provide incentives to create or expand marine biology programs.

Some purists might question the practice of changing natural areas to create or seed artificially produced habitat, but at a time when so many people are concerned that the loss of natural habitat might disrupt major ecosystems or even threaten the future viability of some species, it’s easy to justify the more aggressive practices that Friends of RGV Reef and similar groups employ.

We applaud the group for its efforts.