Piece by piece, life returns to Ocean City sea floor

OCEAN CITY, Md. (AP) -- A few miles off the coast of Ocean City, a wave picked up the 56-foot Morning Star headboat and took no care in its descent.

In the pilothouse, Capt. Monty Hawkins spun the pegs of a worn wooden wheel. The water wasn't bad enough to cancel a fishing trip.

"Danny, why'd you make the ocean so rough today?" Hawkins called out to one of his mates.

He walked onto the top deck and another wave kicked the boat. Guests grabbed poles and rails, but Hawkins let the wave kick him too, gently catching himself on a bar as he fell.

He walked back onto the bridge and watched as another seven-foot wave approached.

"The rougher it gets, the more beautiful it is," he said looking over the dark blue water.

The past 35 years Hawkins has fished for a living. His specialty is knowing Ocean City's reefs, where he finds flounder, sea bass, tautog, blueline and golden tilefish for the people who pay to fish from his boat.

As the waves churn at the surface, 60 feet below new habitat is being created for creatures at the bottom of the food chain through reef restoration. Hawkins is leading that charge as president of the Ocean City Reef Foundation.

His passion for not just fishing but the fish is apparent in the way he runs his boat, expecting his mates to make sure every fish released back into the ocean keeps swimming.

"Clean release, clean release. I don't care if it's just a stinking eel. I want a clean release," he said.

Working on the water, Hawkins has seen the ocean change. There was once a time when an angler could head out with a compass and a watch and navigate to miles of reef off Ocean City's coast, Hawkins said. But a commercial surf clamming "gold rush" tore that habitat apart more than 40 years ago.

Reefs are an important part of the ocean ecosystem because they give young fish a place to hide from big fish.

Since the late `80s, Hawkins has seen large objects, such as concrete pipes, subway cars and submarines sunk off the coast to create artificial reefs.

"Over time I came to realize what we were doing was increasing spawning habitat," he said.

He saw that reflected at the end of his fishing pole. Reef restoration has exponentially increased the populations of the reef species he targets, he said.

Off Ocean City two main types of coral are attaching to the artificial structures -- chunky, white northern star coral and thin, red seawhip.

Every trip Hawkins makes on his charter boat he adds a little bit more to those structures, and starts some new ones, by dropping defective 90-pound cinderblocks that are donated from a local construction company. They're not good enough to build a home for people, but they'll do fine as a home for small organisms, which hide in the cracks and holes from predators.

"Nooks and crannies, that's where marine life happens," Hawkins said.

Drop enough of the blocks and you'll have a new reef, Hawkins said.

He has been recognized by the National Aquarium for his work restoring reefs off Ocean City's coast. June 28 he brought a group of aquarium employees out to fish and see the work's impact. Unfortunately, the big waves made for a bad fishing day.

Jack Cover, general curator at the aquarium hooked one of only three fish caught that day, a black sea bass, one of the species Hawkins said is benefiting from the reefs. While reefs off Florida get all the attention, the same systems are in place off Ocean City, and they're just as important, Cover said. Which is why the reef restoration is also important.

"We have to accept that we've altered the world," Cover said. "It's going to take people like Monty to fix things."
Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., http://www.delmarvanow.com/

The Daily Times of Salisbury