Fake reefs boost Gulf of Mexico marine life, tourism

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(CNN)The skeleton of the 473-foot transport vessel once known as the Texas Clipper is a thriving underwater habitat in the Gulf of Mexico.

Its presence on the nearly barren seafloor 17 miles off the coast of South Padre Island, Texas, is part of a program that's boosting tourism while enhancing the Gulf's marine life six years after the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Artificial Reef Program, established in 1990, promotes, develops and maintains artificial reefs in the offshore waters of Texas, according to its website.
    The state has 66 artificial reef sites in the Gulf of Mexico, covering about 3,440 acres popular for fishing and diving adventures. The reefs attract invertebrates such as barnacles and clams, according to the program. The encrusting organisms mark the first stage of the food chain and attract a variety of fish.
    Texas, like many states, is dependent on the tourism industry and the reefs are credited with bringing water enthusiasts back following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Hundreds of thousands of anglers and divers travel offshore each year, with many visiting one of the artificial reef sites managed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD).
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    A week ago, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation (TPWF) and the Coastal Conservation Association partnered with the TPWD to announce plans for the largest artificial reef ever placed in Texas waters.
    The 381-acre reef will be created with 500 concrete pyramid structures with holes large enough for fish to swim through, according to the TPWF.
    The TPWD also is securing another large container ship to be submerged in the Gulf and transformed into another artificial reef. The Kraken, formerly known as the SCM Fedra, is a 370-foot cargo vessel weighing about 6,000 tons. The ship was towed from Trinidad to Texas where it is being cleaned before it is deployed in the fall.
    The new ship-reefs will join more than a dozen boats that have been purposely sunk off the coast of Texas to be used as artificial reefs over the years. The Texas Clipper is one of them.
    Before being known as the Texas Clipper, she was known as the USS Queens, according to reef program officials.
    The Queens was launched on September 12, 1944, and served as a World War II transport and attack ship. After the war, she became the SS Excambion and carried cargo and passengers between New York City and Mediterranean ports. Her third and final name was the USTS Texas Clipper, and she served as a Texas A&M University maritime training vessel, according to the TPWD.
    The Clipper was meticulously cleaned of debris and hazardous materials to comply with Environmental Protection Agency regulations before it was submerged, officials said. In November 2007, the Clipper was sunk 17 miles off the coast of South Padre Island. She sits about 134 feet below the surface, on her side.
    Holes were cut into the side of the hull to control the flooding of the ship. The method was used as an alternative to explosives, which could have caused a negative impact on the surrounding ecosystem, according to the TPWD.
    As the water flooded its hull, the Clipper listed to the side and went down on an angle. She came to rest on her port side at the bottom of the Gulf.
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    The Texas Clipper has been underwater for almost 9 years, and the environmental and economic impacts have been tangible, officials said.
    The rig attracts many different fish species such as the Atlantic spadefish, red snapper, barracuda, cobia, and various sharks. The ship is also visited by endangered sea turtles such as the hawksbill and Kemp's ridley, as well as various marine mammals, according to the TPWD.
    The beach resorts, fishing charters and diving trips in the area have enjoyed a large economic impact as well. "Our business probably quadrupled in the first year," said Tim O'Leary, CEO of American Diving in South Padre.
    "It's not just our business -- the local hotels, restaurants, gas stations have all seen an increase in business as well," O'Leary said. "I would say 80% of the people who come to us want to dive to the Clipper."
    Texas isn't the only state with reef programs. There are similar programs in Florida, California, Delaware, New Jersey, Louisiana and Mississippi.
    Maintenance of the Texas Clipper as well as the sinking of other ships for use as reefs is financed in part by the settlement reached after the April 20, 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. BP agreed to provide up to $1 billion to fund early restoration projects in the Gulf of Mexico to address the damage caused to natural resources by the spill.
    The spill was triggered by an explosion on the BP-contracted Transocean Ltd. Deepwater Horizon oil rig. For 87 straight days, Gulf residents watched helplessly as oil and methane gas gushed from an uncapped wellhead, one mile below the surface of the ocean. The federal government estimated 4.2 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf, but BP argued in court that it was much lower. A judge ruled BP was responsible for the release of 3.1 million barrels.