Late fisheries employee remembered with living memorial

Soon after the old menhaden boat hits the ocean floor a transition will take place as algae, barnacles and plants take hold of the structure and become habitat for the fish and marine life around it.

As the vessel becomes part of the Howard Chapin Reef about 12 miles outside of Beaufort Inlet it will also become a living memorial to the life and work of the late Jim Francesconi.

Francesconi, a 27-year employee of the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, died July 18, 2014, after a battle with leukemia. As the one-year anniversary of his death approaches, an effort is under way to honor his work with the state’s Artificial Reef Program.

The plan is to rename the ship after Francesconi and sink it to become part of the existing artificial reef. The goal is to do so by mid-July.

“The beautiful thing about this is that Jim’s passing is creating this wonderful living reef,” said Steve Broadhurst, a Carteret County diver and board member of the Eastern Carolina Artificial Reef Association.

There is still money to be raised to make it happen, but Broadhurst and the others leading the fundraising project are confident it will be a reality.

“I look forward to being under the water and seeing that ship sitting upright on the sea floor with Jim’s name on it,” Broadhurst said.

The fundraising group is headed by Broadhurst, Bobby Purifoy of Olympus Dive Center in Morehead City, and Debby Boyce of Discovery Diving in Beaufort.

The opportunity came up earlier this year when Tim Mullane of American Marine Group in Norfolk, who had worked with Francesconi on various projects, offered to provide at-cost a ship to sink as a reef in his memory.

Gregg Bodnar, who has been filling in as interim coordinator of the North Carolina artificial reef program, said renaming the ship the James J. Francesconi and sinking it to serve as an artificial reef is a fitting tribute.

Bodnar said the artificial reefs create habitat for marine life and sunken ships are some of the most popular destinations for divers. He said Francesconi loved seeing the impact that artificial reefs had and being a part of creating them.

“He was very passionate about the artificial reef program and had a love for it,” he said. “To know you created something like that, that is what drove him.”

Bodnar said they have about $70,000 for the project that will come from the proceeds of the sale of vanity license plates for the artificial reef program, and fundraising is underway for the remainder of the funds.

He said plans are to sink the 180-foot vessel at one of the most popular reef sites off the North Carolina coast and one that Francesconi particularly liked.

Purifoy said the reef site is about 12 nautical miles outside of the inlet but is nearshore and is nearly half way between Beaufort and Bogue inlets, making it an ideal location.

“The location is just six miles from the beach and can be easily accessed by a lot of people,” he said.

Purifoy said the habitat the artificial reefs create benefit anglers, commercial fishermen, and divers, who all contribute to the local economy.

“It’s a win-win situation for everybody,” he said.

The division has been supportive of the effort and the private fundraising includes donations from organizations and as well as an online account that anyone can go to and make donations at gofundme.com/JJF-Reef-Project.

Broadhurst said they need about $110,000 to $120,000 for the project.

Coincidentally, he said, the license plate program is one Francesconi helped start in 2005 and had been letting the fund build over the years.

“He was caretaker of the fund and just let it keep building up so it could be used for something big,” he said.

Broadhurst said they are talking with community organizations and spreading the word among the fishing and diving community. The Go Fund Me account was set up so that anyone interested in showing their support can donate.

The goal is to have the ship purchased, cleaned and transported so that they can commemorate the anniversary of Francesconi’s death in mid-July.

Friends and colleagues say the tribute is a well-earned one for a man who contributed so much to the artificial reef program.

“He was the Artificial Reef Program coordinator for 14 years so a lot of vessels were put down during that time and he created a couple new reef sites,” Bodnar said.

Francesconi’s efforts resulted in hundreds of enhancements to artificial reefs from the Outer Banks to Long Bay, including the creation of the New River Reef (AR-398) near Jacksonville, the Jim Knight Reef (AR-430) near Oak Island and the Bob Black Reef (AR-400) near Frying Pan Tower, according to the Division of Marine Fisheries.

He also oversaw the sinking of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter SPAR, the Tug Titan, the Captain Greg Mickey, the Tug Pawtucket, the Admiral Charlie, and two U.S. Coast Guard Falcon aircraft.

Follow the project through its facebook page at JJF Reef Project.

For more information about the Artificial Reef Program or the JJ Francesconi project, contact Gregg Bodnar at 252-808-8053 or [email protected].

 

 

Photo: The late Jim Francesconi, longtime coordinator of North Carolina’s Artificial Reef Program, enjoyed fishing around the artificial reefs he helped create off the state’s coast.

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