Thanks for the Memories ... and the Reefs

Man Behind the Reefs Receives a Patch of His Own

By Jay Mann | Aug 13, 2019
Photo by: Supplied

Surf City — Manahawkin’s Bill Kane Figley, the man credited with making New Jersey’s artificial reef system what it is today, has been bestowed with a namesake reef – specifically, a section of the Atlantic City Reef. Bill, a marine biologist, was the first New Jersey Artificial Reef coordinator, working for 22 years to find creative and effective ways to create vibrant reef systems for anglers to enjoy. He is now retired.

On Saturday, July 27, Bill was present when the state Bureau of Marine Fisheries sank a massive caisson gate, emblazoned with a special “Thanks” on one of its sides. That deployment instantly created what is now known as the “William Kane Reef.” Bill chose his middle name for the reef.

If you’re not sure what a caisson gate is, sufficed to say it’s a massive steel structure with tons of concrete ballast at the keel. It’s used in dry dock areas to block water from entering as ships are built. The U.S. Navy supplied three of them for Jersey’s artificial reef system. Bill’s now personalized caisson gate is 140 feet long, 25 feet wide and 30 feet high. It will spend likely the rest of its life in roughly 95 feet of water, give or take tides and ocean rise. It resides about 16 miles from Little Egg Inlet. That inlet was a favorite fishing area for Bill, his family and fishing club buddies. The reef patch – patch being the term for individual components of the reef system – is about 65 feet below the surface. Its coordinates: North 40° 08.0330146’ x West 073° 56.431’.

Per the state, “This deployment will serve as habitat for up to 150 various types of marine species for the next 75 years or more. This project was sponsored in its entirety by the TheSportFishingFund.org.”

TheSportFishingFund.org is a worldwide organization dedicated to sponsoring the building of artificial reefs.

I’ve oft alluded to Bill as “Father to the New Jersey Artificial Reef System.” Since he won’t say it outright, I’ll take the lead in saying he was surely at the helm throughout the designing phases and deployments of most everything we now appreciate as the reef network. The work carries on, using many of his methods.

The state’s reef-building effort began in 1984, when it first assumed reef-building responsibilities – taking the reins from a group of NJ boat captains who had begun placing reef patches dating back to 1935. Using mainly out-of-pocket funding, those grassroots reef-building pioneers made significant initial contributions to what we see today. Back when, their work was seen as folly. Today, over 1,200 patch reefs have been constructed on the state’s 15 designated reef sites.

Those founders surely deserve a tip of the cap for launching the untried concept of making uneventful bottom parcels into sanctuaries for marine life. Seeing the merit in their efforts, the state took over, though funding has been catch-as-catch can, with the likes of Bill seeking ways to keep reef building capital flowing.

In building the state’s now dynamic reef system, Bill made highly creative choices when it came to seeking material for reef deployments. For instance, he utilized tightly bound tire clusters, defunct Hudson ferries, decommissioned military tanks, retired vessels and unique sinkables called igloos. Shaped as their name implies, igloos are handmade concrete structures designed to attract a diversity of marine life, which they’ve done. They are now heavily occupied, inside and out.

One of the more enterprising reef material ideas chosen by Bill was NYC subway cars. Expectedly, the choice initially met with a trainload of pushback from green groups, which feared residual mechanical and urban gunk might still be riding the repurposed cars. That’s when Bill began lecturing on the impeccably high standards when it comes to making reef material squeaky clean before being dropped into the deep. His lectures – and assurances of cleanliness – eventually won over a goodly number of doubters. After a few technical bumps on the track, the subway cars became one of the most complex additions to the reef system. In a bit more than a New York minute, marine life was taking the A-Train.

During my early meet-ups with Bill, he focused on the complexity of successful reef building, not only mechanically but also ecologically. Like most anglers, I figured you dumped the right stuff on the bottom and just like that, gamefish gathered. Build it and they will … etc.

Not even remotely so, I was advised. I got schooled on the multi-step, often lengthy, biosystem growth process, which actually has gamefish as among the last ones to arrive – quickly accompanied by anglers and divers.

It took some adjusting to assume Bill’s excitement as he displayed underwater photos of tiny pioneering invertebrates and crustaceans populating a just-deployed patch of reef. He thrived on seeing the biosystem essentially taking hold, knowing that the complex network of marine life began at that point. Only after hearing about the vital initial artificial reefs growth could I get him to finally say, “Then … the gamefish arrive.” As we know, that’s what is definitely happening now on the maturing reefs.

Not immune to controversy, Bill took on commercial fishing interests by gaining governmental support for the reef system being used primarily for recreation. Currently, only hook-and-line angling and spearfishing are permitted on the reefs.

As boat fishing the reefs has become a way of life for near shore anglers, a solid debt of gratitude is vicariously sent Bill’s way with every hookup or scuba dive. In further respect, it’s essential to support the New Jersey Artificial Reef Program. More info can be found at nj.gov/dep/fgw/artreef.htm.

— Jay Mann

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