The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries maintains 43 ocean artificial reefs and 25 estuarine reefs. Artificial reefs and the reef materials placed on them are strategically located and designed to maximize access by anglers and divers while also serving valuable biological and ecological roles. Ocean reefs are accessible from every maintained inlet in the region and are located between 1/2 – 38 miles from shore, though most of the 43 ocean reefs are within 10 miles. The 25 estuarine sites are found in Pamlico Sound and its tributaries, Bogue Sound, the New River, and the Cape Fear River. These estuarine reefs include 14 specialized artificial reefs called Oyster Sanctuaries.
Interactive Reef Guide
The Division has developed an interactive map of the different artificial reef locations and coastal WRC boat ramps. Use the Interactive Reef Guide by clicking below. The interactive guide has replaced the paper copy of the Artificial Reef Guide. While the paper guide is still useable, it is only accurate up to 2016. Multiple reefs are enhanced each year. Updates to the online guide are published periodically.
Why Build Artificial Reefs in North Carolina?
Simply said, reefs create habitat for fish; fish habitats contribute to healthy fish populations; healthy reef populations provide great fishing and diving sites.
Although naturally productive reefs occur along the coast and estuarine waters, much of the coastal and estuarine sea floor is flat, featureless sand or mud. Only 3% of North Carolina’s offshore waters have hard bottom habitat. When “artificial” materials such as concrete pipe, reef balls, and ships are placed on the sea floor, they provide structure where there was previously none. Whether it’s an inshore or an offshore reef, this material soon becomes encrusted and colonized by marine organisms, such as barnacles, soft corals, sponges, shellfish, and various algaes, and seaweeds. This provides food and refuge for small baitfish that, in turn, provide food for larger predatory fish. The three-dimensional structures replicate the ecological functions of food and refuge provided by North Carolina’s natural hard bottom habitat.
Artificial reefs are considered crucial spawning and foraging habitat for many important fish species — so much so that the N.C. Coastal Habitat Protection Plan recommends expanding reef construction to offset past habitat degradation, habitat loss, and water quality degradation that can negatively impact coastal ecosystems.
Artificial reefs are built with finfish production in mind, using a variety of materials and supporting scientific research to maximize their success. Oyster Sanctuaries are a specialized artificial reef found in estuarine waters. The primary function of an oyster sanctuary is to create oyster habitat that will provide brood stock and generate oyster larvae, while supporting diverse and abundant finfish populations. North Carolina builds oyster sanctuaries in areas where oysters will thrive and, like all artificial reefs, where hard or live bottom habitat does not already exist.
Support for the North Carolina Reef Programs
North Carolina has one of the most active reef enhancement programs in the country, due in part to wide public support and a small but dedicated Division of Marine Fisheries Artificial Reef staff who develop, maintain, evaluate, and administer the reef systems. The Division’s reef programs receive funding for the enhancement and biological sampling of reef sites from the North Carolina General Assembly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Sport Fish Restoration Program, and the North Carolina Coastal Recreational Fishing License Grant Program. Private reef associations, fishing clubs, businesses, and members of the public offer logistical and practical support by generating funds, donating materials, and providing input on future enhancement projects. Multiple universities, labs, and government agencies also study North Carolina’s artificial reefs.
The NCDMF Artificial Reef Program typically enhances multiple reef sites per year. Want your local reef enhanced? Contact the Artificial Reef Coordinator and Biologist today!
North Carolina’s artificial reefs are home to a variety of important finfish species. Species presence vary by location and time of year. The fishing calendar provided below shows common times when each species can be found at artificial reefs. We consider nearshore reefs to be located 0-5 miles off the beach and offshore to be 5+ miles from the beach. For the most up to date information on rigs, techniques, and what’s biting, visit your local tackle shop or view the Division’s Recreational Fishing Reports. Before going fishing, be sure to check the current regulations for fishing as well as Rules, Safety, and Etiquette on Artificial Reefs for fishing and diving on artificial reefs.
Disclaimer: this table shows what is present on the artificial reefs, but it does not represent what is legal to harvest. Check current regulations before going fishing.
In recent years, artificial reefs have contributed significantly to the growth of recreational SCUBA diving in North Carolina waters. The diversity of fish and the interesting assortment of material types like reef balls make North Carolina artificial reefs favorite areas for divers to visit. North Carolina offers world-class diving opportunities and is often hailed as the top wreck-diving destination in North America. Artificial reefs have over 70 ships sank throughout the reef system! Divers visit artificial reefs from around the world to explore history and enjoy underwater photography, videography, spearfishing, and more.
Diving conditions on North Carolina's artificial reefs vary greatly between regions and sites. Water temperatures (70-80F), visibility (>30’) and weather conditions are most favorable between June and October. Generally, reefs further than 3 miles off the beach will have the best visibility. There are 29 offshore reefs with an average depth of less than 60 feet, meaning most offshore reefs can be comfortably explored by anyone with their basic SCUBA certification. However, visibility and general diving conditions are highly dependent on currents, weather conditions, water depth, distance offshore, tidal stage, time of year and many other factors. Divers should always use caution when planning trips and should consider any of the great local dive shops to book a trip.
The sinking of the Schoolhouse.
Fishing has always been an important aspect of life in Eastern North Carolina. Whether inshore, nearshore, or offshore, North Carolina’s coast has served as a source of food, livelihood, and recreation since the first people arrived 12,000 years ago. While the fundamentals of fishing have changed very little over the centuries, new technology, better fishing opportunities, and more coastal residents have made the pursuit of fish more popular than ever.
In the early 20th century, a select few fishermen knew the locations of natural rocks and reefs, guarding them in secrecy as favored fishing spots. As time progressed, the secrets got out and coastal North Carolina became known as a world-class destination for sport fishing. During the 1920s and 1930s the fledgling sport fishing industry continued to develop and by the close of World War II, sunken vessels were sparking interest. Fishermen began to realize that vessel casualties of the war had a silver lining: habitat for diverse and abundant marine life including fish to catch.
Unfortunately, for most recreational fishermen at the time, many WWII vessels were too far offshore and out of range for their small fishing boats. Only on the calmest days - and at considerable risk - could smaller, private fishing craft enjoy the sport offered by the wrecks. Accordingly, during the 1950s and 1960s, a number of fishing clubs attempted to build their own reefs closer to some of North Carolina’s navigable inlets.
Early attempts at reef construction were haphazard affairs. Automobile bodies, washing machines, old automobile tires, scrap concrete, and numerous types of other materials were dumped at selected locations offshore in an effort to provide areas where recreational fishermen in small boats could fish. In 1964, the Fabulous Fishing Club of Morehead City obtained a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct an artificial reef about 2 miles off Atlantic Beach, at Latitude 34° 40’ North, Longitude 76° 45’ West. That reef, constructed primarily of rubble from the old Newport River Bridge and tire units, formed the basis of what is today AR-315. Also, during the 1960s, local fishermen established two ad hoc fishing reefs off New Hanover County. Founders of these reefs marked locations off Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach, and constructed habitat using their personal boats to transport small items such as weighted automobile tires, old stoves, and washing machines.
These do-it-yourself reefs did improve inshore fishing, but they had little profile to attract the larger pelagic species tended to get covered by sand quickly, and were even environmentally damaging. However, in these areas where reefs were built, they were generally considered successful, even if only for a short time. The reefs attracted fish, the fish attracted fishermen, and the fishermen spent money.
In 1969, Mr. Meares Harriss, Jr., Vice Chairman of the New Hanover County Commissioners, spearheaded a move to have two tugboats, the Firefighter and the Mohawk, added to the reefs to give them higher vertical profile to attract more mid water column sport fish. The vessels were donated by the Stone Towing Line of Wilmington. The sites selected for the reefs were on hard bottom to prevent the old tugs from sinking into the sand. Both vessels were sunk in June 1970, resulting in vastly improved fish catches in the area.
The success of the early artificial reefs did not go unnoticed by what was then the North Carolina Division of Commercial and Sports Fisheries (now the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries). By the early 1970s the Artificial Reef Program was under development and most of the existing private reefs were quickly absorbed into it. In 1972 the federal Maritime Administration Artificial Fish Reef Program was established under Public Law 92-402. This program authorized the Secretary of Commerce to transfer over-aged Liberty Ships in the National Defense Reserve Fleet to any state applying in accordance with the law's procedures for use on artificial reefs. Between 1972 and 1978 North Carolina acquired four Liberty Ships as additions to its reef system — the start of modern artificial reef enhancement in North Carolina.
Using diverse materials and coordinating with numerous public and private entities, the Artificial Reef Program developed into one of the most active state enhancement programs in the country. Over the past several decades the Artificial Reef Program has constructed and maintained a total of 43 ocean and 26 estuarine reefs, 14 of which also serve as oyster sanctuaries. The ocean reefs vary considerably in depth and distance from shore, though they are situated so that they can be reached from every maintained inlet in the state. The estuarine reefs are found in Pamlico Sound and its tributaries, Bogue Sound, the New River, and the Cape Fear River. Decommissioned vessels, recycled concrete, prefabricated reef units such as reef balls, and rock can be found throughout the artificial reef system, providing substance and profile to what was once bare sand bottom. Today’s artificial reefs host thriving biological fish communities and are a playground for fishermen, divers, and biologists alike.
- Observe all state and federal fishing regulations.
- If using SCUBA, complete dive courses and obtain all necessary certifications.
- Fish responsibly; use circle hooks, and vent fish when necessary.
- Do not tamper with commercial fishing gear.
- Oyster harvest is strictly PROHIBITED from Oyster Sanctuaries, however fishing is highly recommended.
- Do not litter or throw any trash overboard. Remember, fishing line, plastic, and other garbage can kill fish, turtles, and birds. It can also entangle and endanger divers. Bring garbage back to the dock and dispose in an appropriate receptacle.
- First come, first served: Be courteous and give anchored boats a wide berth.
- Do not dive on artificial reefs where fishermen are drift fishing.
- Display an appropriate Diver Down flag when divers are in the water.
- Watch for divers. Stay away from boats displaying a Diver Down flag.
- Always proceed with caution if there are Diver Down flags. Watch for diver’s bubbles.
- Immediately release all live fish and shellfish that you are not planning to keep.
- Be aware of your surroundings and use caution when diving.
- Artificial reefs may contain sharp or jagged surfaces.
- Respect the environment you’re visiting.
- Please do not touch coral or pick up any marine creatures. This can damage or even kill the creatures you’re visiting.
- Dive at your own risk.
Artificial reef materials are selected based on four primary considerations: function, compatibility, durability, and stability. Materials used must meet their intended function by supporting diverse and abundant biological communities. Selected materials must also be compatible with the aquatic environment in which they are placed. This means they must not pose environmental risks. Unstable materials or those prone to movement or easy degradation are not used.
Artificial reef materials must also meet several state, regional, and federal guidelines, including guidelines set by the North Carolina Artificial Reef Master Plan, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission guidelines for Marine Artificial Reef Materials, the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Guidance: Best Management Practices for Preparing Vessels Intended to Create Artificial Reefs, and the 2007 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service National Artificial Reef Plan. See below for the materials used to enhance North Carolina’s artificial reefs!
Types of Artificial Reef Materials
Over 70 vessels have been sank on artificial reefs. Research has shown that these vessels often host a wider variety of species due to their high profile in the water column. Vessels provide a place for scuba divers to explore and a dynamic habitat for fishermen to fish.
Precast concrete includes various sizes of concrete pipe, culverts, junction boxes, and manhole sections. Usually, these materials have some defect or crack that makes them unsuitable for sale by the manufacturer. These materials are often nested inside one another and stacked in irregular piles to provide more complex habitat. These donated precast structures are one of the most affordable and widely used reef materials in North Carolina.
A Reef Ball is a designed habitat that resembles a small igloo with many holes leading into a hollow interior cavity. Reef Balls have openings where fishes can evade predators. They also have surface area for invertebrates to attach.
The Artificial Reef Program occasionally obtains concrete from the demolition of bridges, roadways, and piers. This material can vary in size from boulder-sized pieces, to pilings, to large bridge spans. The concrete is deployed piece-by-piece from barges with heavy equipment. Multiple loads can be dropped on top of each other to provide higher vertical relief from the bottom.
Many coastal states, including North Carolina, use natural materials to create and restore various habitats. Natural materials most often include quarried stone such as limestone marl, granite, and basalt. Limestone marl and granite make up the bulk of the natural materials used on artificial reefs, most of which is deployed on the estuarine and Oyster Sanctuary reefs to provide substrate for oysters to grow on.