Group aims to sink ship as part of marine park off Port

Nonprofit plans to create artificial reefs to restore fish habitats, make diving sites that include student art
By 
BILL SCHANEN IV
Ozaukee Press staff

A nonprofit organization dedicated to shipwreck preservation, freshwater education and aquatic habitat restoration plans to create an artificial Lake Michigan reef by sinking a freighter off Port Washington.

The sinking of a ship is part of an $8.9 million plan to create a series of artificial reefs extending from Port’s north breakwater that would include attractions such as fish cribs, smaller sunken vessels — perhaps a commercial fishing tug — and sculptures made by area students, Joe Frank, co-owner of Port Deco Divers, said this week.

In addition to being diving and snorkeling sites, the reefs would be designed in partnership with the University of Wisconsin School of Freshwater Science to create habitats for fish and other freshwater aquatic species, according to a description of the project that is being spearheaded by the Shipwreck Education And Preservation Alliance (SEAPA), a nonprofit organization founded by Tish Hase, who is also a co-owner of the Port Washington dive shop.

SEAPA has hired Artificial Reef International, a Key West, Fla., firm that specializes in creating artificial reefs by sinking ships. The company would procure a ship between 200 and 600 feet long, prepare it according to Environmental Protection Agency regulations by removing anything that could contaminate the lake and carefully sink it in 110 to 130 feet of water about two miles east of Port Washington, Frank said.

The sunken ship would create what the group calls a “super size structured artificial reef” that would serve as a habitat for fish and an attraction for divers of all abilities, Frank said.

“Because of the size of the ship, it could come within about 30 feet of the surface, making it accessible to even beginner divers,” he said.

Ideally, Frank said, the ship would be a Great Lakes freighter similar to the Cedarville, a 588-foot bulk carrier that sank in 1965, or the famed Edmund Fitzgerald, a 729-foot freighter that sank in Lake Superior in a November 1975 gale. 

Although there are several shipwrecks within 10 miles of Port Washington, none would be as intact or as close to the city as the one created by sinking a ship, he said.

“With an artificial reef of this size, it will also help the historic preservation of the shipwrecks located off the shores of Port Washington ... by relieving the diving pressure on them,” according to SEAPA’s project description.

The sinking of the ship hinges on securing permits from several agencies and raising $5 million to $6.8 million.

SEAPA plans a phased approach to its initiative that would also include a series of smaller artificial reefs extending from the breakwater in depths that would range from 8 to 300 feet. Frank said he envisions an underwater park similar to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park off Key Largo, Fla., the first underwater park in the country.

This part of the project would entail the construction of stairs on the north side of the north breakwater extending into the water to provide snorkelers and divers with easy access to the lake. The stairs are estimated to cost $350,000 and would be donated to the City of Port Washington.    

Among the underwater attractions in the park would be fish cribs that provide habitat and spawning grounds for several species and sunken boats, including possibly a fishing tug currently on the NewPort Shores restaurant property on Port Washington’s lakefront. Frank said that organizers have talked with NewPort Shores owner John Weinrich about acquiring the boat if his property is redeveloped as planned.

Concrete and metal sculptures created by area middle and high school students would be another feature of the underwater park, Frank said, adding that students could experiment with different coatings to see which ones best repel the quagga and zebra mussels that now cover most shipwrecks.

Fundraising for the project has begun, and organizers envision the creation and placement of sculptures to create reefs to begin in January and be completed by 2022.

With plans for a Lake Michigan national marine shipwreck sanctuary that would have included the waters off Port Washington either dead or dormant, Frank said, SEAPA’s underwater park would fill a void by providing educational opportunities and creating an attraction that would draw people to Port Washington.

“We’re trying to fill a gap by creating some educational opportunities that would also benefit the city,” he said. “We’re all in on this project.” 

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