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Published Monday, August 1, 2005

Fishermen are hooked on artificial reefs in lake


By WAYNE KNABB
The Times-Picayune

NEW ORLEANS
Five experimental artificial reefs on the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain are attracting more than just sea life.

Anglers crowd the sites on weekends, said Michael Poirrier, a University of New Orleans biology professor who leads the data collection team monitoring how the empty concrete globes with holes are working.

"They are the new fishing spots," said Kelly Whitmore, a UNO biology graduate student who is collecting data on the success of the reefs.

The reef balls are concrete half-globes with volleyball-size holes that provide a haven for sea life. They've been preferred for making artificial reefs since the initial effort, at the Lakefront Airport, which is made of Arkansas quarry limestone rubble.

Using reef balls instead of rocks produces more current breaks, which in turn attracts more small fish, experts say. Plankton, small fish and large crawfish ride the currents and go to the reefs, Poirrier said. Large fish feed on them, and fishermen feed on the large fish, he said.

On weekdays when the wind is calm and the weekend fishermen are gone, Poirrier, Whitmore and several biologists and undergraduates go diving to identify and count the creatures that have taken refuge around the sites.

Whitmore said that when the wind has been calm for several days, underwater visibility can be as good as 10 feet. She has seen speckled trout, flounder, catfish, sheepshead and jack crevalle, which "look like tuna but don't taste as good," she said.

Whitmore said the reefs are interesting places to observe.

"You never know what you will see: blue crabs poking out of the holes, eels," she said. "It's an adventure."

The study will include how the reef balls respond in the lake's brackish, low-salinity water, Whitmore said.

Reef balls are used in high-salinity waters in other parts of the world, she said.

The census data will be used to determine whether more reef balls can be placed elsewhere in the lake, Whitmore said.

Any visitors to the reefs are welcome to submit a report on their findings, which will be tabulated in the census, she said. A form that can be e-mailed to her is available at.

The final report on the census is to be finished early next year, Whitmore said.

The foundation is talking with the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries about the project's second phase: creating a dive park in the lake, toward Slidell, said John Lopez, director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation's Coastal Stability Program.

Snorkelers could see sea life under the lake there.

"People don't know what's under the lake," Lopez said. The reef would be a research station with the potential for biological monitoring, Lopez said.

The reefs are part of an effort to re-establish a hard bottom to areas of the lake affected by past shell dredging, Poirrier said.

The first reef was installed in July 2001 near the Lakefront Airport. Reef balls were placed in September and October 2003 at three former oil platform sites west of the Causeway in Jefferson Parish, and a fifth one was placed January 2004 south of Mandeville in St. Tammany Parish, Lopez said.

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Information from: The Times-Picayune,


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