The artificial reef - a series of 14 offshore sites lying between Sandy Hook and Cape May that contain shipwrecks, concrete balls, tanks, pipes, railway cars, steel ships, barges, refinery parts, cable and rock - provides a home for fish, which in turn attracts fishermen and scuba divers. Most of the reef sites are less than 10 miles from shore.
The expansion of the reef system to as much as 100 square miles will help offset the decline of the fish population due to "overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction," according to a new draft report on the artificial-reef system, written by state biologist Bill Figley.
Moreover, the report identifies a new threat to fisheries: "the mining of ocean sand ridges for beach nourishment which threatens to both destroy productive ocean ridges and bury in-shore wrecks and groins."
Early last week, the 69-page draft of the new Artificial Reef Management Plan for New Jersey was posted on the Internet, but by midweek, it had been pulled from the Web site of the state Division of Fish and Wildlife (www.njfishandwildlife.com).
Al Ivany, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the plan was pulled from the Internet over an internal timing matter and would be re-posted sometime in the near future. An invitation for public comment - also issued last week - would be renewed, he said.
The draft, four years in the making, updates a plan in place since 1987, he said.
"We've learned a lot since then," Ivany said. "It's been 15 years."
It was unclear whether the report would be modified before being re-posted. Some critics hoped that it would.
"It seems like they have a long way to go in clarifying some of those policies," said Cindy Zipf, of Clean Ocean Action. "Artificial reefs in concept and in purpose are valuable. The devil is in the details."
The new plan calls for expanding the reef system to as much as 100 square miles of sea floor, or nearly 3 percent of the offshore area out to 30 miles. The reefs add contours, nooks and crannies along an ocean terrain that lacks its own natural reefs.
The 14 reef sites now are evenly spaced to provide access to each of the state's ocean inlets. The plan calls for possibly squaring the corners of the 14 reef sites to increase the surface area and filling two gaps in the network: off Townsends Inlet, Cape May County, and off Barnegat Inlet, Ocean County.
The report states that in the future the preferred material for artificial reefs would be units of prefabricated concrete and steel that mimic the indigenous underwater terrain - as opposed to what critics deride as "any junk will do." About 700 concrete balls have already been placed in the artificial-reef network.
The reefs are funded through a combination of public money and private donations, including programs such as "Adopt-a-Wreck," in which donors name a reef sponsored by their donations.
While addressing the needs of anglers and divers, the report also calls for creating "no-harvest reefs" as sanctuaries for marine life, as well as reefs devoted to research.
The plan says the state needs to keep one group from dominating the reefs, in particular the commercial fisheries known to blanket a reef with fishing pots. It also outlines possible risks with artificial reefs, including spills and pollutants, displacement of species and disruption of migratory patterns.
The plan specifies materials - wood, corrugated metal, fiberglass and tires - that no longer are considered dense, stable or durable enough for use in artificial reefs. Steel structures will be accepted only if they can be expected to last for at least 15 years. All materials require "careful evaluation" to determine whether their long-term use is warranted.
In Texas and California, it is mostly old petroleum platforms that are submerged as havens for fish, known as the "Rigs to Reef" program. In New Jersey, the artificial reefs are mostly old shipwrecks and a host of other objects. The plan spells out these criteria:
Concrete and steel rubble from demolished piers, buildings, bridges and the like may be used if the majority is in "large chunks" and does not contain floatable materials, toxic residue or large volumes of dirt.
Only aluminium or steel-hulled vessels are acceptable.
Military vehicles, including tanks and personnel carriers, may be used after proper cleaning and preparation. Lightweight vehicles, such as jeeps and trucks, are not stable or durable enough.
Railroad cars - passenger, tanker, hopper and flatbed - are acceptable with proper preparation. The report states that the assistance of the U.S. Coast Guard and federal Environmental Protection Agency has been enlisted to "develop a protocol for cleaning and preparing" New York City Transit Authority subway cars.
Prohibited materials include wooden vessels, vessels made of steel-reinforced cement, fiberglass vessels or hull molds, railroad boxcars, concrete-ballasted tire units, automobile and truck bodies, airplanes and appliances such as refrigerators and stoves that are covered in white enamel.
Ivany, the state spokesman, said DEP Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell was still mulling the issue of New York subway cars, which were rejected by New Jersey and submerged in Delaware instead.
"Delaware has what New Jersey refused," said Tom Fote of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association, which represents 30,000 recreational fishermen and says the subways cars are environmentally acceptable. "They're making us look like fools."
Fote noted that recreational fishing is a $1.2 billion activity and said anglers were also concerned about environmental impact. "If there was any chance this would hurt the environment, we wouldn't do it," he said. "We want criteria too."
Zipf, of Clean Ocean Action, which opposes the use of subway cars as artificial reefs, said the program had to strike a delicate balance. "It depends on what they're calling reef material," she said. "When does reef building end and ocean dumping start?"
Contact Amy Rosenberg at 609-823-0453 or email@example.com.