For 14 years, Jim Francesconi headed the state’s artificial reef program, using old bridges, discarded concrete pipes and scuttled ships to create places along the coast that attract fish and marine life.
Now, nearly a year after Francesconi’s death from leukemia, divers and fishermen who appreciate Francesconi’s work are raising money to prepare a ship to be sunk in his honor on an artificial reef southwest of Beaufort.
The 180-foot menhaden fishing trawler will be renamed the James J. Francesconi before it is sent to the bottom to provide new habitat and hiding places for fish and other marine life.
Robert Purifoy, owner of Olympus Dive Center in Morehead City and one of the leaders of the fundraising effort, said divers and sport fishermen alike have rallied around the project to remember Francesconi, who was 54 when he died last July.
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“He was well-liked. He got a lot done,” Purifoy said. “Anytime when you’re in a position like that, you’re judged by your production. And he put a lot of pipes down, created a lot of habitat.”
The idea to honor Francesconi with a shipwreck originated with Tim Mullane, whose American Marine Group in Norfolk, Va., has sunk five vessels in North Carolina waters for reefs, said Gregg Bodnar, a biologist who now runs the artificial reef program at the state Division of Marine Fisheries.
Mullane offered to provide the trawler Shearwater at cost and get it ready for sinking, Bodnar said. That still meant coming up with about $120,000.
The biggest chunk, $70,000, will come from the fees people pay for a special scuba diving license plate. A gofundme Web page has received nearly $8,000 in pledges. Other donations brought in about 75 percent of the goal two months before the scheduled sinking.
There are 50 designated artificial reef sites in North Carolina – 42 off the coast and eight in Pamlico Sound and its tributaries. Some are littered with concrete objects designed and built to act as what are known as patch reefs, but many more are made of “materials of opportunity,” as Bodnar puts it, such as concrete culverts, boxcars, roadbeds and bridges.
The old steel trestle bridge to Atlantic Beach became a patch reef, Bodnar said, and whenever the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet is replaced, pieces of the old one will become a reef somewhere, too.
Ships are popular reef materials because they’re fun for divers and because they can sit up high off the bottom, creating a more vertical habitat. The North Carolina coast is littered with shipwrecks, many dating from the U-boat attacks during the early days of World War II.
But some of the most popular ones are newer, more intact scuttled ships such as the USS Indra, which was built initially as a landing craft repair ship in 1945 and sunk by the state in 1992 near where the James J. Francesconi will go.
“It’s an amazing shipwreck,” Purifoy said. “It attracts unbelievable diverse marine life. It’s a fascinating place to scuba dive. It’s a great place to go fishing.”
‘An art form’
Preparing the Shearwater to become the Francesconi will mean removing the engines and any other sources of hydrocarbons, taking out other floating material and thoroughly pressure washing it stem to stern, Bodnar said.
Then holes will be strategically cut in the ship below the waterline and quickly plugged. When the ship is over the reef site, those plugs are carefully removed to let the water in so that it goes down stern first and settles on its keel, upright.
“It’s definitely an art form,” Bodnar said. “The individuals who do this and do it well are very good at the job.”
There also will be additional holes cut in the ship so divers who venture inside are assured of an easy exit.
Francesconi oversaw the sinking of five vessels and two Coast Guard Falcon jets for artificial reefs, as well as materials for hundreds of other patch reefs. Sending a menhaden trawler down in his name is fitting, Bodnar said.
“It’s a nice way to memorialize his service with the artificial reef program,” he said. “You’re creating a long-lasting habitat, which was his passion and his interest for 14 years.”