Plan to sink ship for reef gets mixed reactions

Port aldermen table action amid questions about proposal to scuttle freighter, sink sculptures off breakwater
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

A nonprofit organization’s plan to sink a freighter two miles off the mouth of the Port Washington harbor and sculptures created by area students off the breakwater met with mixed reaction from the Common Council Tuesday.

Although the city was asked to be a co-applicant with the Shipwreck Education and Preservation Alliance in its application for a Department of Natural Resources permit to place structures at the bottom of the lake, aldermen tabled action until their Wednesday, Nov. 7, meeting saying they had too many  questions to make a decision Tuesday.

Aldermen asked for additional information on SEAPA itself, how it would fund the six-phase project, potential city liability and the potential impact on the fishery, among other things.

“I’m not ready to vote on this,” Ald. John Sigwart said. “I’m not comfortable with it yet.

“I don’t know that we know enough about the probability of success yet. It seems to me this is a very expensive project that may have value for tourism. I don’t see anything saying it’s of value to the perch. I really don’t see that here, the value to the fishery.”

Ald. Jonathan Pleitner added, “It’s a great project. I would just like to get more information. I think that would go a long way.”

Ald. Dan Benning also noted that aldermen received a significant amount of information about the project shortly before the meeting and they need more time to review it.

Several residents at the meeting spoke in support of the project, including C.T. Whitehouse, a noted sculptor who said the artistic aspects could set Port apart from other communities and “turn it from a stopover to a destination. This is an opportunity we should embrace.”

SEAPA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to shipwreck preservation, freshwater education and aquatic habitat restoration, has proposed a six-phase, $9.97 million project intended to create artificial reefs off Port’s shore that it says will improve the aquatic environment and help restore native fish levels.

The initiative will also develop a public access into the lake, aid in educational efforts at local schools and colleges, help local police, fire and dive teams train for emergencies and increase tourism, said SEAPA President Tish Hase, co-owner of Port Deco Divers in Port Washington.

The organization is seeking permits from the DNR and Army Corps of Engineers for the first two phases of its project, which involve sinking a 200 to 600-foot-long freighter in 110 feet of water two miles off the mouth of the harbor and having local high school students create sculptures that will be anchored to the lakebed at varying levels outside of the breakwater.

The city needs to be a co-applicant for the DNR permit because it has riparian rights in the area where the sculptures would be located, officials said.

We Energies has agreed to be a co-applicant for the first phase for the same reason, Hase said.

These phases will create artificial reefs that would create a “supersized” habitat where native fish such as lake trout and yellow perch can thrive, said Hase and SEAPA Vice President Joe Frank, who is also co-owner of Port Deco Divers.

“What we’re trying to do here is bring back healthy fish species,” Frank said. “These (structures) are all going to be habitat that brings back indigenous species. We have to take an active step to make that happen. This is probably the best, cheapest option for the community.”

“When we do dives, we don’t see fish anymore,” Hase added.

The third phase would involve submerging a 41-foot wooden fishing vessel similar to the Linda E. — the last fishing tug out of Port Washington — in 50 to 70 feet of water to create a reef for larger aquatic species to use as habitat, as well as some sculptures. The fourth phase would require sinking a number of clean vehicles to create not only fish habitat but also an area for local emergency crews to use for training and education.

A 25-step staircase from the breakwater to the lakebed would be created as the fifth phase of the project, allowing public access to the lake, and fish cribs would be placed along the breakwater wall.
The last phase involves long-term fundraising to support the project. 

The first phase of the project, sinking of the freighter, is estimated to cost between $5 million and $6.8 million, while the projected price of the second phase is $540,000.

The project would also relieve pressure on shipwrecks in the area by providing divers with a destination, according to SEAPA.  

Benning questioned whether the effort is intended more as a diving destination or fish habitat, prompting Hase and Frank to emphasize the impact on the fishery.

 But Carrie Webb, a water management specialist with the DNR who is reviewing the permit application, said in an interview that the impact on native fish is undetermined, noting the structures are more likely to become home to the quagga and zebra mussels that have had a significant impact on the fishery.

“The purpose seems to be more diving,” Webb said.

Both Ald. Paul Neumyer and Mayor Marty Becker said structures in the lake will benefit the fishery.

“You always fish (near) structures,” Becker said. “I thank you for thinking outside the box.”

The DNR is reviewing the application to see if it meets standards for underwater structures, looking at the potential impact on habitat, water quality and navigation, among other things, Webb said.

If it meets those standards, Webb said, the department will issue the permit.

Because the project would be the first of its kind in the Great Lakes, Hase said, it would prompt interest and publicity that will draw donors.

“Right now we’re not asking the city for money,” Hase said, adding she’s already applied for some grants for the project. She will find out the results of one grant application in mid-November, she said, and another application is due next month.

Fundraising, she said, will begin in earnest after SEAPA obtains the permits.

The organization has hired Artificial Reef International, a Florida firm that specializes in creating artificial reefs by sinking ships, to procure the freighter, which would be cleaned of anything that could contaminate the lake before being sunk, Hase said.

The firm is skilled at fundraising and can “easily raise $2 million to $3 million” for the project, she said.

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