State of the Reefs
Florida finds innovative ways to meet the demand for new artificial reefs.
“If you build it, they will come.”
That’s the simple theory behind our desire to build artificial reefs.
The more complex theory involves the creation of a marine food web which begins the moment larval invertebrates such as barnacles and hard corals bump into a piece of structure and glom on. Before long another “layer” of sealife, including crabs and shrimp, moves in to feed on those earlier arrivals. Soon after, small fish like pinfish and black sea bass discover the new dinner buffet, and as we all know, where there are small fish, larger fish are right behind.
For most of Florida’s history of artificial reef building, however, we initiated that natural process in a somewhat haphazard manner. Well-meaning coastal county governments would sink just about anything that had a specific gravity higher than seawater. Typewriters, refrigerators, washing machines, copiers, cash registers and bicycles-all went over the side. Unfortunately, the odd hurricane, or tropical storm, would eventually scatter most of the stuff all over the seabed, somewhat defeating the purpose. Those days are over, however, and today reef sites and materials are carefully chosen to enhance the existing bottom habitat, increase local fish populations, and stay put.
And thanks to the development of pre-fabricated concrete modules, along with an abundance of derelict ships, numerous outdated bridges and other concrete debris discarded by a growing society, there is no lack of material available for reef building. Nor is there a lack of interest on the part of recreational anglers and local governments. Numerous non-profit fishing and diving organizations throughout the state exist for the single purpose of creating and enhancing artificial reefs. At least a dozen teams of highly trained divers run bottom surveys and monitoring programs associated with artificial reef construction. Some larger coastal counties, recognizing the substantial economic impact of saltwater fishing and diving have full-time staff positions dedicated to creating more reefs.
“There are currently 1,843 artificial reefs in state and federal waters off of Florida,” said Bill Horn, an environmental specialist in the artificial reef section of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Division of Marine Fisheries. “That includes multiple but separate deployments on a single large site.”
The state’s artificial reef section disperses around $600,000 every year to support artificial reef projects around the state. The money is generated by anglers through two sources-half comes from the sale of recreational saltwater licenses and half from the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Program which sends money back to the states from a federal excise tax on fishing tackle.
It’s money well spent, and returns an economic value that can hardly be overstated. One recent study done by Broward County found that the “capitalized value” associated with artificial reef use in Palm Beach, Broward, Dade and Monroe counties was $2.8 billion annually.
The state issues about 20 grants each year to county governments, nonprofit organizations and universities pursuing reefbuilding initiatives or artificial-reef studies. About two thirds of the grants go toward reefs in state waters and about one third goes to projects in federal waters. Individual grants are used to place material, buy prefabricated modules, clean ships destined for sinking, and fund studies designed to improve the success of future artificial reefs. Scores of other new reefs and deployments are created without state support each year by other entities such as county governments, fishing clubs and reef-building organizations.
As a result, reefs of all shapes and sizes are appearing around Florida at an unprecedented rate. In the first six months of 2002, 74 new sites were added to the state’s artificial reef database.
Among those were some interesting deployments including a number of ships previously seized by U. S. Customs in Miami that have been turned into artificial reefs off southeast Florida. In the Panhandle, Okaloosa County recently sank a steel-hulled paddlewheel steamboat, the Seabarb, which once ran on the Mississippi. In Lee County, a 36-ton radio tower was cut up into pieces, which were anchored in concrete at one end to form a vertical reef that will attract both bottom fish and pelagics.
Florida and neighboring Alabama are the only states along the Gulf and Atlantic that still allow the construction of “private” reefs. A private reef doesn’t mean only the person that put it there can fish there. It means anyone can assemble suitable reef material, have it approved, and then place it anywhere they want within a permitted area, only in these cases the coordinates are not published.
Florida has seven such areas in the waters off the western Panhandle ranging between 14 and 108 nautical square miles-two off Escambia County, three off Okaloosa County and two off Bay County.
Unfortunately, that effort pales in comparison to private reef building off the Alabama coast. “We have 1,200 square miles permitted off Alabama,” said David Walter, owner of Reef Maker, a private reefbuilding and placement company. “We utilize every area that we can except an area set aside for shrimpers.”
The permitted area is as wide as the 30-mile Alabama coast. It starts in about 65 feet of water and continues out to about 180-foot depths. It also omits some areas that contain natural hard bottom.
Since 1986, Walter’s company alone has placed more than 13,000 reefs for private anglers and charterboat operations, even for some charterboats operating out of Florida but fishing in waters off Alabama. Each reef is in a tetrahedron form composed of concrete beams and automobile tires and covers about 1,600 square feet. Although tires are no longer permitted in Florida waters, Walter has demonstrated their success as a growth medium and has been able to secure them with the concrete beams.
Except for the use of car tires, and in some cases metal of specified thickness, Alabama has restrictions on materials similar to Florida’s. “Each reef has to be approved by the Alabama Department of Conservation,” said Walter, who also places reefs built out of materials acquired by individual anglers.
“It’s been calculated that a reef the size of an automobile will produce 2,000 pounds of North American red snapper over a five-year period,” said Walter, adding that Alabama’s artificial reef program is why the state “lands 40 percent of the recreationally caught red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico while having only one percent of the coastline.”
Many fishermen in Florida would agree that our state badly needs
to explore additional opportunities for individual reef-building initiative. Too often, that initiative is mired in bureaucratic details. Without permits-which can be hard to come by in some areas-you can be prosecuted for dropping your own materials over the side, even something as small as a cinderblock.
“The Coast Guard has been pulling up the old reefs people used to build around here,” said a tackle shop manager in the Florida Keys. “It’s a shame-we could really use some more reefs for people to fish, especially on the Gulf of Mexico side. In winter the water may be calmer on that side, but there really isn’t much out there anymore.”
Small Numbers Can Make a Big Difference
An example of how a small group of anglers can make a big difference took place in Charlotte County in 1998 when a few members of the Punta Gorda Fishing Club got together and formed the Charlotte Harbor Reef Association.
The group raised some funds and received a $15,000 grant from the FWC. Their plan was to use molded concrete balls to rejuvenate the Charlotte Harbor Reef and enhance the bottom habitat along piers and around private docks in Charlotte Harbor. “We wanted to use materials that would provide quality habitat, stability and longevity,” said Jerry Jensen, president of the association.
They further decided to manufacture their own reef balls, “a decision that saved about $27,000,” said Jensen. They rented six molds from Reef Innovations, Inc. and received a “mini-grant” for the use of seven more from the Reef Ball Foundation. With a little training and generous support from Krehling Concrete, a Naples company that provided space at a local batch plant, they were ready to go.
“About 40 volunteers worked one day a week for five hours,” explained Jensen. Crews of about six people poured molds on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and stripped the molds on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. During a four-month period they made 462 reef balls, many weighing as much as 1,500 pounds apiece. A total of 210 reef balls were placed on the Charlotte Harbor Reef which was originally established in 1980 from bridge debris and was badly in need of enhancement. “Today,” said Jensen, “50 to 70 boats stop there to fish every weekend.”
The rest of the reef balls were placed under private docks, and along local fishing piers.
“This was the first time reef balls had been approved for fishing piers and private docks,” said Jensen. “It took a lot of paperwork but we got it done.”
Since that groundbreaking project similar efforts have gotten underway in Tampa Bay where in one case a homeowners’ association is working with members of Coastal Conservation Association Florida to use reef balls to enhance the habitat along seawalls and around private docks.
Jensen, who has recently been appointed to the FWC’s artificial reef advisory board, adds that the Charlotte Harbor Reef Association is also encouraging fishing participation by initiating a fishing course for seventh-graders in the four middle schools in Charlotte County. The class sessions, which cover all aspects of fishing from marine conservation to safely releasing fish, are taught by local fishing captains.
Another group that has been building reefs for a long time is the Tallahassee-based Organization for Artificial Reefs (OAR). Organized in the mid-1980s, OAR volunteers have been improving the habitat and the bottom fishing off Florida’s Big Bend. They’re responsible for at least 30 popular reefs in the area and many more deployments at large sites.
Directing the initiative is the OAR Research Dive Team-a group of divers that provides the necessary bottom surveys before a reef site can be selected. All reef sites statewide are chosen based on a minimum of live bottom in a given area, plus there has to be a rock base beneath the sand to keep the reef material from sinking out of sight.
Groups like OAR are especially valuable to small rural counties that don’t have the resources of their urban counterparts, but can still benefit economically from additional artificial reefs. The Dive Team provides the underwater expertise and even handles paperwork for small understaffed counties such as Wakulla and Franklin in the Panhandle. By contrast, Pinellas County has three full-time employees working on artificial reef projects.
A portion of OAR’s funding comes from the Big Bend Saltwater Classic, which is the biggest saltwater fishing tournament in the eastern Panhandle. The Classic is an independently run event with the stated goal of enhancing the habitat of the northern Gulf.
Members of OAR also undertake studies to determine the best materials and reef designs for the northern Gulf. One recent study, which required detailed monthly fish counts, compared placement patterns of prefabricated cube modules and found that small, isolated reefs within a wider area held nearly three times as many total fish as an even greater number of modules grouped in one spot.
“Besides delivering more bang per cube,” explained FWC’s Horn, “anglers have proven to be more interested in fishing where there is widespread reef terrain, rather than fishing over a single huge reef in the middle of a 2-square-mile permitted site.”
Currently the dive team is looking for a site for the rubble from three miles of the St. George Island Bridge that is scheduled for destruction when a new bridge is completed in 2004. The bridge rubble will probably be distributed in three or four long lines similar to many of the exposed limestone ridges in the northern Gulf that are so popular for trolling.
They may not yet know where the new reef is going, but they do know the fish will find it.
Locating Artificial Reefs
You can find artificial reef locations in Florida at www.floridasportsman.com and at the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Web site www.floridaconservation.org. The Florida Sportsman Fishing Chart series also provides locations and coordinates for many of Florida’s artificial reefs.
Applying for a Reef Grant
The FWC’s Artificial Reef Section sends out a request for grant proposals each year in January. If your nonprofit organization wishes to be included in the request announcement, contact Bill Horn or Keith Milli at (850) 488-6058 for an application form, or you can send a message through the FWC’s Web site and request an application. Each year the program receives about a million dollars in grant requests but is funded to distribute only about $600,000.
For a project to receive funding the recipients must already have the necessary state or federal permits in hand. Reef permits in state waters are provided by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection through regional wetland resources offices and are the same as standard dredge and fill permits. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers handles permits for reefs in federal waters.
ug Boats for Reefs
A recent cooperative effort between state and county governments and the U.S. Customs Service has led to the creation of 10 new artificial reefs in the last six months off Palm Beach, Broward and Dade counties. That’s the number of confiscated, steel-hulled ships, ranging between 80 and 258 feet in length that have been towed out of the Miami River to resting sites along the southeast coast. At one time, large vessels seized by Customs as part of enforcement efforts against smuggling operations were sold at auction until it was discovered that in some cases the original owners were buying the ships back. The feds now scrap out any useful equipment such as radar and GPS units and apply the money toward cleaning the ships for sinking.
One creative project in Palm Beach County this past spring included the sinking of three large ships close together in a line, “so divers could go along from one ship to the next to the next,” explained David Carson, an environmental analyst with the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources. Added Carson, the popular fishing and diving spot was dubbed the Governor’s Riverwalk Reef after the operation that got the ships moved out of the Miami River in the first place.