Artificial Reefs, They Produce Fish…and Catches


There’s no denying the fish attraction of artificial reefs.

More than 180 scientists, county reef coordinators, state and federal officials, fishermen and shareholders came together at the January Artificial Reef Summit in Cocoa Beach to discuss the latest in Florida artificial reef development and deployment. University researchers and federal officials were on hand to explain the impacts of manmade wrecks on bottom-fish species—not all of them rosy—while county coordinators divulged their latest developments in reef material and placement.

One hot-button topic that continues to linger—the idea of fish attraction versus fish production—was magnified at the conference. Deploying more wrecks along Florida’s coastline seems like a clear no-brainer for anglers, but from a fishery-production standpoint the waters blur.

“Artificial reefs play almost no formal role in the management of Gulf fisheries,” said Dr. Stephen Bortone, Gulf Council Executive Director. “Most national governments don’t even support federal artificial reef programs. It’s an assumption to believe that restrictions on a fishery’s fitness (ability to survive and transmit genes to the next generation) can be relieved by adding artificial reefs. There are potential pluses, but also many problems.”

Doctor Bill Lindberg, fisheries professor at the University of Florida, extrapolated on some of the problems that arise from artificial reef deployments in a recent interview with Sea Grant Florida:

“When we build a reef, we’re altering the availability of the structure fish need in proximity to their foraging grounds,” said Lindberg. “So yes, they’re drawn to it. And there are studies to suggest that artificial reefs initially hold higher densities of fish than natural reefs.”

“One argument is that adding more habitat really isn’t doing anything but changing the spatial dynamics of fish distribution—and where people fish,” he said. “In the absence of fishing, we might expect fish to spread their numbers out among available habitat. But it’s not necessarily true for heavily fished reef fish; fishermen can move around in response to catch rates faster than fish naturally redistribute themselves.”

“The more mobile a fish is, the more it depends on a broader ‘footprint’ than just the reef for its prey and various life stages. For economically viable fish like grouper, it’s much less likely that an individual reef is going to contribute production sufficient to offset harvest.”

No matter if manmade structures are attractors or producers, artificial reef programs continue to stay active around the state—even if it’s on a shoestring budget. Jessica McCawley, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Biological Administrator, says that the state does take into account artificial reefs as part of their fishery management plan, and they provide money (1.5 million dollars plus in 2009) to county reef deployments in the form of grants or matching funds.

 

————————(Highlighting artificial reef activity around the state)———————————-

Big Bend

Researchers will start dropping hundreds of “patch” reefs 100 miles offshore the Steinhatchee River this summer to help boost gag grouper populations for the long term. Headed up by UF professor Bill Lindberg, the conservation reef sites located in about 30 to 50 feet of water are expected to lessen the “bottleneck effect” on immature gag grouper.

Bottleneck Effect background: Each fall, 2- to 4-year-old female gag grouper migrate from seagrass beds to offshore waters when the temperatures cool. Along the way is the most volatile part of their life cycle, says Lindberg. Gags leave habitat- and prey-friendly nurseries to navigate bare bottom of the Gulf to reach deepwater spawning sites.

To provide structure and support for these subadult female grouper (most fish are less than 36 inches), researchers will deploy up to 500 conservation reefs at the Steinhatchee Fisheries Management Area (SFMA).  Reefs are comprised of 3 to 4 concrete blocks. Increased habitat for the immature females will boost growth rates and therefore fecundity for future spawns, says Lindberg.

All deployments in the SFMA are expected to be complete in about four years. GPS numbers of these patch reefs will not be released to the public, though the area will be open to fishing. (Taylor County has an established set of artificial reefs in the northern tip of the SFMA that are published.) A similar patch-reef zone to the south called the Suwannee Regional Reef System has had positive effects on gag grouper.

Southwest

Any Gulf Coast bottom-bouncer can tell you that reds and gags don’t always hang in the same locales. Gags tend to congregate in greater concentrations near high-relief structure associated with artificial reef material, while reds prefer low-relief limestone pockmarks, mixed with a bit of coral and sand.

Lee County’s artificial reef program wanted to capitalize on the reds’ temperance for minimalist structure, and in 2003, dropped 35 2- to 10-ton experimental concrete slabs and limestone rubble at the Charlotte North Reef site. Their intentions were to attract red grouper, one of the most prevalent species off Lee County.

After years of studying the experimental reefs, their outcomes were mixed. Results found an increase in recruitment of red grouper over time, but not initially. An unexpected outcome was the number gag grouper observed at the low-relief sites. A mix of improper placement of underwater structure and an overall increase of grouper throughout the region may have contributed to their findings, said Justin McBride, an environmental specialist with Lee County.

The low-relief artificial constructs tended to bury in the sand bottom over time, says McBride, though that led to a unique red grouper behavioral discovery. Underwater video shows that reds are  excavators, and they will vigorously move sand away from their hiding-hole entrances to create open space.

Southwest

The biggest nearshore grouper of them all is on the rebound, and in a big way. Since 1990, goliath grouper have been in recovery mode, and in 2007, a research study began to observe and tag goliath grouper along the central west coast.

Collecting harvest statistics is not a practical option for this protected species. Instead, FWC biologist Angela Collins has made over 350 dives at 78 survey sites to observe goliaths with help from a custom, remotely-operated vehicle (ROV). Using laser lights from the ROV, Collins can get accurate measurements of every fish her team comes across. Divers also dart-tag some of the fish they monitor using a modified spear gun. From this, researchers expect to better understand the goliath’s life history, behavior and habitat preferences.

Preliminary findings show that goliaths are more likely to hang around artificial structure such as shipwrecks, versus natural habitat like limestone ledges. “We’ve recorded goliath grouper on 90 percent of the artificial reefs we monitor,” says Collins “but only 35 percent of the natural bottom.” In addition, tagging data indicate that individual goliaths may have substantial movement patterns, depending on the individual fish. One fish tagged off Lee County was caught near Jupiter on the east coast.

Goliath grouper numbers increased in conjunction with site depth and depth relief, found the observation team, and so far, more than 165 goliath grouper have been tagged. Collins sees about a 13 to 16 percent re-sight rate, with the majority of these fish spotted at their initial tagging site.

Southeast

Not all artificial reef programs are equal, and the culprit’s often a lack of funds. Some counties don’t have active programs; others are re-tooling their efforts. Jacksonville re-established its program in 2009 (after a 5-year hiatus) to sink the Coast Guard cutter Spike. At the far end of the spectrum, counties like Escambia, Sarasota, Collier, Bay and Martin feature dynamic programs that are in continual planning mode for their next drop.

How do they do it? Reef deployments involve extensive pre-planning and costs, so it’s pertinent to highlight when one region of the state is exceling at reef-building, even with obvious monetary hurdles. The Martin County Artificial Reef Fund (MCAC) was established in 2002 as a private corporation to enhance the county’s artificial reef program. Started by local fishermen, divers and business owners, the private group (affably self-described as “Reeftirees” or “Reefers”) raises money for deployments through fishing tournaments, fundraising events, and even naming rights to perspective reefs.

The efforts are paying off. A series of linear north-to-south manmade reef tracts supplement the once “desert” areas off Martin County. To the south, divers report late- summer aggregations of goliath grouper on artificial reef sites off Jupiter. In February 2010, the 69-foot tugboat Big Al was deployed in 187 feet of water. Businessman Ted Glasrud purchased the naming rights, which covered much of the project’s costs, and now the Glasrud Reef rests nine miles northeast of the St. Lucie Inlet.

East Central

Ninety percent of Oculina coral banks (Oculina varicose) off the east coast of Florida have been scraped from the seafloor in the last three decades, says FSU marine biologist Chris Koenig. Destroyed by commercial dredges and nets historically, the area known as the Oculina Bank is still molested by illegal trawlers.

This area spans from Daytona Beach to Fort Pierce (starting in 160 feet of water) and is a historical spawning site for deepwater groupers, black seabass, speckled hind and red snapper.

Researchers are probing out new means of recruiting this slow-growing, deep-water coral. The coral larvae’s tendency not to settle and re-grow on top of dead corals has led to experimental deployments of reef balls and concrete discs, and now even dilapidated steel ships.

Micheal Barnette, a marine biologist with NOAA, is one of those brainstorming the ship deployment idea. Offshore, the increased surface area of vessels [compared to reef balls or discs] would provide corals space to settle and grow, he said. Further more, the wrecks would be easier to re-locate in depths surpassing 200 feet for further study, and would serve as a deterrent to illegal trawling.

The following coordinates are public numbers provided by the FWC. Latitude and longitude are printed in degrees, minutes and decimal minutes. Charts were downloaded from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and, in the form here, are not intended for navigational use.  The sites were plotted using Fugawi Marine ENC navigation software.

A sampling of new deployment as of 2010

BAY RED SEA TUGBOAT MIDWAY II SHIP STEEL 125′  TUGBOAT 3000.958 8542.003 74 36
BAY 2009-8 SOUTH SITE MODULES CONCRETE WALTERS LIMESTONE (4) 2943.496 8540.487 93 12
BAY 2009-7 BRIDGE SPAN SITE11 MODULES CONCRETE WALTERS LIMESTONE (2) 2944.032 8542.689 102 12
BAY 2009-6 BRIDGE SPAN SITE11 MODULES CONCRETE WALTERS LIMESTONE (2) 2944.515 8542.705 102 12
BAY 2009-5 NORTH SITE MODULES CONCRETE WALTERS LIMESTONE (3) 2946.740 8541.608 82 12
BAY 2009-4 NORTH SITE MODULES CONCRETE WALTERS LIMESTONE (3) 2946.270 8542.154 95 12
BAY 2009-3 BRIDGE RUBBLE SITE MODULES CONCRETE WALTERS LIMESTONE (5) 2946.563 8535.867 85 12
BAY 2009-2 TOWER SITE MODULES CONCRETE WALTERS LIMESTONE (5) 2943.695 8528.275 60 12
BAY 2009-1 TOWER SITE MODULES CONCRETE WALTERS LIMESTONE (5) 2944.184 8528.309 60 12
BAY DUPONT BRIDGE RUBBLE #1 COUNTY LAARS SITE  A CONCRETE SLABS AND RUBBLE 2958.719 8550.713 95 10
BROWARD NOVA REEF ROC ARTIFICIAL REEF FORT LAUDERDALE REEF SITE “C” MODULES CONCRETE REEF-ROC UNITS (201) 2609.100 8005.195 43 1
CHARLOTTE CAPTAIN JEFF STEELE REEF-#09-1 CAPTAIN JEFF STEELE REEF CONCRETE CULVERTS 2655.674 8235.832 60 8
COLLIER DR PASS 4.5 MILE SITE-#09-4 DOCTORS PASS 5.0 MILE CONCRETE PILINGS (200) 2610.241 8154.043 30 10
COLLIER DR PASS 4.5 MILE SITE-#09-3 DOCTORS PASS 5.0 MILE CONCRETE RUBBLE (200) 2610.254 8154.049 30 10
COLLIER DR PASS 4.5 MILE SITE-#09-2 DOCTORS PASS 5.0 MILE CONCRETE PILINGS (150) 2610.269 8154.035 30 10
COLLIER DR PASS 4.5 MILE SITE-#09-1 DOCTORS PASS 5.0 MILE CONCRETE RUBBLE (150) 2610.278 8154.043 30 10
DADE OPHELIA BRIAN REEF KEY BISCAYNE SMZ SHIP STEEL 205′ 2542.346 8005.148 110 40
DADE GOLDEN BEACH ETERNAL REEFBALLS SITE #9 GOLDEN BEACH MODULES CONCRETE REEFBALLS  (9) 2557.779 8005.877 43 4
DADE GOLDEN BEACH ETERNAL REEFBALLS SITE #8 GOLDEN BEACH MODULES CONCRETE REEFBALLS  (6) 2557.757 8005.871 43 3
DUVAL FLOYDS FOLLY FLOYDS FOLLY (FF) CONCRETE CULVERTS 3010.034 8109.322 75 15
DUVAL SPIKE REEF HARMS LEDGE SHIP STEEL TUGBOAT 76′ 3022.535 8053.690 110 35
ESCAMBIA JEFF’S REEF ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE GROUPER MODULE (3) 3017.833 8714.113 40 2
ESCAMBIA DAVID’S REEF ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE WALTER FLORIDA LIMESTONE (4) 3017.833 8713.869 43 8
ESCAMBIA ANDI COYLE REEF ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE WALTER FLORIDA LIMESTONE (1) 3017.898 8713.863 40 8
ESCAMBIA GB SERTOMA.COM REEF 2 ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE WALTER FLORIDA LIMESTONE (2) 3017.878 8713.969 45 8
ESCAMBIA RFRA REEF #14 ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.873 8714.066 41 6
ESCAMBIA RFRA REEF #13 ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.294 8714.072 55 6
ESCAMBIA RFRA REEF #12 ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.339 8714.089 53 6
ESCAMBIA RFRA REEF #11 ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.372 8714.085 49 3
ESCAMBIA RFRA REEF #10 ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.439 8714.093 48 6
ESCAMBIA RFRA REEF #9 ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.474 8714.099 47 6
ESCAMBIA RFRA REEF #8 ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.534 8714.112 48 6
ESCAMBIA RFRA REEF #7 ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.588 8714.112 48 6
ESCAMBIA RFRA REEF #6 ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.632 8714.116 47 6
ESCAMBIA RFRA REEF #5 ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.686 8714.116 46 6
ESCAMBIA RFRA REEF #4 ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.739 8714.131 43 6
ESCAMBIA RFRA REEF #3 ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.778 8714.133 43 6
ESCAMBIA RFRA REEF #2 ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.863 8714.146 39 6
ESCAMBIA RFRA REEF #1 ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.276 8714.152 52 6
ESCAMBIA PARADISE B & G REEF ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.328 8714.138 54 6
ESCAMBIA OUTCAST FISHING AND HUNTING ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.378 8714.158 52 6
ESCAMBIA TOM WHITE PRINTER REEF ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.426 8714.146 49 6
ESCAMBIA HELEN MAE TORRES REEF ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.466 8714.162 48 6
ESCAMBIA WAYNE FRIER ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.518 8714.158 53 6
ESCAMBIA DAVID LEE SELLERS ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.576 8714.149 53 6
ESCAMBIA FREEDOM BOAT CLUB ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.616 8714.150 52 6
ESCAMBIA ROY JONES JR 2 ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.669 8714.169 51 6
ESCAMBIA ROY JONES JR 1 ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.715 8714.168 49 6
ESCAMBIA ACADEMY 2 ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.760 8714.184 47 6
ESCAMBIA ACADEMY 1 ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.808 8714.176 44 6
ESCAMBIA FREDRICK H CLEVELAND ESCAMBIA NEARSHORE EAST MODULES CONCRETE FISH HAVENS (3) 3017.866 8714.194 43 6
HILLSBOROUGH EGMONT KEY REEF (BAY),#25 EGMONT KEY REEF (BAY) MODULES CONCRETE REEFBALLS (19) 2734.970 8244.680 18 3
MANATEE 7 MILE NORTH REEF, SITE “09-01-07″ 7 MILE NORTH REEF ROCK LIMESTONE BOULDERS (300) 2732.340 8252.673 40 18
MARTIN SIROTKIN CHARLIE SIROTKIN SITE CONCRETE ,CULVERTS, BOXES AND PILINGS (200) 2712.814 8000.289 187 13
MARTIN SIROTKIN BRAVO SIROTKIN SITE CONCRETE ,CULVERTS, BOXES AND PILINGS (300) 2712.936 8000.280 187 7
MARTIN SIROTKIN ALPHA SIROTKIN SITE CONCRETE ,CULVERTS, BOXES AND PILINGS (250) 2713.040 8000.306 185 10
MONROE HOYT VANDENBERG VANDENBERG SITE SHIP STEEL 522′ 2427.597 8144.188 145 100
PALM BEACH BOYNTON #3 REEF BOYNTON SITE #3 ROCK LIMESTONE (300) 2631.870 8001.950 69 13
PALM BEACH MV MISS LOURDIES BOCA DEEP SITE SHIP STEEL 165′ WORK BOAT 2619.188 8003.200 140 41
PINELLAS WJ SHRIMPBOAT TREASURE ISLAND II VESSEL STEEL SHRIMP BOAT  45′ 2741.686 8317.547 100 25
SARASOTA I-1, LYNN SILVERTOOTH, #34 I-1 CONCRETE ANCHORS (12) 2717.115 8235.870 30 4
SARASOTA I-1, LYNN SILVERTOOTH, #25-4 I-1 MODULES CONCRETE REEFBALLS (8) 2717.072 8235.864 30 5
SARASOTA I-1, LYNN SILVERTOOTH, #25-3 I-1 MODULES CONCRETE REEFBALLS (11) 2717.163 8235.944 30 4
SARASOTA I-1, LYNN SILVERTOOTH, #25-2 I-1 MODULES CONCRETE REEFBALLS (11) 2717.156 8235.966 30 4
ST. LUCIE FISH AMERICA FOUNDATION #4 NORTH  HUTCHINSON ISLAND NEARSHORE CONCRETE CULVERTS AND LIGHTPOLES 2731.173 8011.110 55 27
ST. LUCIE FISH AMERICA FOUNDATION #3 NORTH  HUTCHINSON ISLAND NEARSHORE CONCRETE CULVERTS AND LIGHTPOLES 2731.227 8011.156 55 27
ST. LUCIE FISH AMERICA FOUNDATION #2 NORTH  HUTCHINSON ISLAND NEARSHORE CONCRETE CULVERTS AND MANHOLES 2731.214 8011.158 55 18
ST. LUCIE FISH AMERICA FOUNDATION #1 NORTH  HUTCHINSON ISLAND NEARSHORE BARGE STEEL (65′) 2731.213 8011.169 55 10

 

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  • Gary Parsons

    Imagine a seabed consisting of sand and shell—while not a desert, there are benthic animals dependent on plankton and detritus—-but no reef fish. Then imagine an area of virtually continuous natural reefs. Plenty of reef fish but distributed by competetion for forage. Most gulf bottom lies between those extremes. So in the absence of natural bottom, artificial reefs provide shelter that allow reef fish a base for foraging.

    We have the technology to quantify the area and distribution of natural and artificial reefs—-and now with the Restore Act, the funding to do the surveys—-get on with it and settle attraction vs production.