Last fall the Asbury Park Press reported on the first archeological expedition of the shipwreck Robert J. Walker. The wreck dates back to 1860, when the government survey vessel collided with the schooner Fanny and subsequently sank, killing 20 of the 73 people onboard.
The ship’s final underwater resting place remained a mystery for 100 years until a lobsterman caught his traps on the wreck. Since wreck sites are known for being productive, the lobsterman sold the coordinates, which were about 10 miles off the coast of Atlantic City, N.J., to a local head boat captain for $25. Today, the 132-foot iron steamer is listed on the National Record of Historic Places. That means it’s protected from salvagers and treasure hunters but open to diving and fishing.
In some places, however, fishing has damaged historic shipwrecks sites, leading to some researchers calling for making these sites into marine protected areas. A paper recently published in Marine Policy by Jason Krumholz and Michael Brennan makes the point that since shipwrecks create artificial reefs protecting them benefits both historical/societal good and the commercial fishing industry by contributing to higher fish populations. In fact, they found that shipwreck sites that were heavily damaged tended to have a lower abundance of fish.
The researchers studied shipwrecks in the Aegean, Black and Mediterranean seas, where a 100-year-old wreck would seem modern compared to the ancient vessels in these waters. The damage from trawl fishing can be devastating to these ancient wrecks. In an earlier interview with National Geographic, Brennan, an expedition leader with Robert Ballard’s group, described how trawling damaged the Eregli E, the most trawled shipwreck in the Black Sea. It is 2,300 years old.
“The site had been so disturbed, it uncovered materials from beneath the sediment, including human bones,” he told National Geographic. “ The bones had been preserved in the mud, but then had been ripped out by trawls and that’s why we actually could see them. When we returned this year the artifacts we had seen the year before were either further damaged or gone, including the bones that were completely missing, again due to trawling.”
The perils of wreck fishing have been well documented in National Fisherman. Those who dare to fish near wrecks can hope to be rewarded with an abundant catch, but they also risk losing their nets if they get too close and the lines snare on the gnarled wreckage below. Not to mention, shipwrecks are also usually found in waters that were dangerous enough to take them down in the first place. (However, some of the ancient sites in the study were well worn down and in channels that had shifted, which may have contributed to why they were so heavily fished.)
Krumholz and Brennan’s proposal makes sense. But good ideas don’t always turn into sensible management policies. It’s interesting to note that in their research they did not see any difference in fish abundance if a site had been fished or not. In other words, it was the destruction of the habitat created by the artificial reef/shipwreck that mattered. So I think it also makes sense that if anything develops from this research, the focus should be on greater protection of wrecks/artificial reefs that are in actual danger, and hopefully not a new MPA that simply eliminates all fishing in the area.
Beyond that, I confess I’m totally fascinated by underwater photos of shipwrecks and deep-sea creatures. If you are too and want to see more of the work of Ballard’s team, visit the expedition website: http://www.nautiluslive.org/.