CARTAGENA, Spain — Old wooden minesweepers, worn-out fishing boats and concrete blocks with protruding iron bars may not sound like the stuff of paradise. But for fish along this stretch of Spain's Mediterranean coast, that's what they are.
And although they may clash over other coastal issues, environmentalists, fishermen and divers like these underwater obstacles and tourist attractions too. Most of them see benefits from the European Union-backed effort to protect fish habitats and create more attractive diving sites.
The project didn't start out with such wide support. A decade ago, when authorities launched the program to sink ships and concrete blocks, primarily to rip apart fishing nets dragged illegally on the ocean floor, Angel Gomez Gasco was one of many angry fishermen who feared for their livelihoods. But now that they've seen the results, he and many others have changed their minds.
"Almost all of them support it now," said Gomez, head of the local fishing association. "Fish look for shelter in these places and feel protected there. For the fish, these places probably are little paradises."
That was the idea when the program got started in response to a depletion of fish resources.
Allowing the fish a sanctuary brings steadier incomes to fishermen working coastal waters, because the fish are never wiped out. Some are always wandering out from the artificial reefs, Gomez said, so there is rarely any problem in catching enough to earn some money.
"We've noted that we always have fish," he said. "I don't think the number has increased drastically, but we always have fish."
For recreational divers, the artificial reefs and sunken ships are a more direct delight. Authorities knew how much divers enjoy exploring shipwrecks, and they figured that divers would also appreciate ships that were intentionally scuttled. Even the concrete blocks win praise once they're covered with sea plants and swarming with fish.
"I wasn't sure what I thought of it at first," said Stan Petitdemange, 25, a French diver working in the coastal resort town of La Manga for the summer.
"I was thinking 'artificial,' " he said. "But there are so many fish hanging around these artificial reefs! And diving a wreck is really nice. Especially on a shipwreck, you've got so many fish hiding in it. It's like diving in a cloud of fish."
Among the prized underwater ship sites are three U.S.-built minesweepers sold decades ago to the Spanish navy and finally scuttled in these waters a few years ago after their useful life above water had ended.
Three more American-made minesweepers are floating at a Cartagena ship-dismantling yard, awaiting their fate. Authorities and the owner--who bought the ships to sell parts for decorations, for use on other ships and as metal scrap--haven't decided whether the stripped-down vessels will be sunk.
"It's a more romantic, beautiful idea to sink them, to make an artificial reef," said Jose Vicente Porras Damas, whose family owns the ship-dismantling business.
The regional government's principal objective in building the artificial reefs was to protect ocean-floor plants from destruction by fishing nets, said Leandro Bermudez Rodriguez, an official in its fishing department.
"What we want to protect is the habitat, so fish can thrive, and then you can fish more," Bermudez said. "Spain was a pioneer in the Mediterranean in doing this." The practice began in the mid-1980s and was initiated in this section of the Spanish coast around 1992, he said.
Pedro Garcia Moreno, director of the Cartagena-based Assn. of Naturalists for the Southeast, said there has been a "spectacular" recovery of fish populations near the artificial reefs.
Regional authorities sank two kinds of roughly 5-foot-cube concrete blocks, one with protruding iron to snag illegal nets and another with latticework-type openings to provide homes for fish, Bermudez said.
Although nets can be dragged on the ocean floor in deeper waters, it is illegal to drag them in depths of less than 165 feet, where bottom-growing sea plants provide key fish habitat.
Fishermen Versus Divers
How to share coastal fish resources remains a sore point. Divers and fishermen sometimes get in each other's way, with each side saying it faces too many restrictions and the other has too many privileges.
Professional fishermen complain that divers with spear guns take fish illegally and sell them to restaurants. Recreational fishermen say the professionals are still catching so much that their sport is less fun than it could be if there were more fish left for the ordinary angler.
Pedro Fuentes Garcia, 50, a bricklayer who comes often to these shores for sportfishing, said that he's all in favor of putting net-ripping concrete blocks in the ocean.
"If a fisherman is dragging a net around here and the net breaks, I'm happy, because whatever fish escape are free again," he said.