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Issue 592

06/14/2012 at 3:53pm

Artificial ReefArtificial Reefs Attract Interest

A couple of weeks ago the Sand Paper did a story on the Mohawk, a WWII vessel slated to become the first wartime ship ever sunk off the west coast of Florida for use as an artificial reef. While the economic impact to our area from such a project is expected to be quite significant – area dive shops are already filling rosters for charter dive trips to the historic ship – the artificial reef program has been flourishing in Southwest Florida for over 30 years. Appealing to sports fishermen and divers alike, there are 23 such structures dotting the sandy shallows of the Gulf – some as close as Cape Haze – located in 18' of water in Charlotte Harbor – to Charlie's Reef, which is nearly 30 miles off of Captiva Island in 87 feet. According to a study done in 2009 by the University of Florida, these folks spend more than $60 million in the county each year, with an average of 1,350 people using the reefs every single day.

Artificial reefs began appearing off Lee County's shores in the 1950's. Originally they were the domain of groups of fishermen and rogue adrenaline junkies seeking thrills in the new and then-dangerous sport of SCUBA diving who hauled everything from old school buses to mounds of tires out into the Gulf – their locations then becoming a closely guarded secret. As more fishermen came to Lee and SCUBA became safer and more popular, this began to change by the mid-1980's, when Lee County government became more involved in local reef building efforts through their Sea Grant Extension Agent. Improvements were made in site and material selection criteria, permitting and compliance, and marketing to the public.

Michael Campbell, a senior environmental specialist for Lee County, explained that artificial reefs are created for fish habitat.

"While there are a few limestone outcroppings, much of the bottom in the Gulf is flat and sandy – which is dangerous to fish, " he said. "Fish need places to orient themselves, hide from predators and get out of the current – without such areas they wouldn't survive. When these structures are placed on the bottom, the fish have another place to reproduce and live, thus increasing the amount of fish in the Gulf.”

According to the 'Lee County Artificial Reef Plan' created by Lee County Natural Resources in October of 2007, these reefs also reduce pressure on other sites simply by providing an additional place for fishermen to access. "This dilution of fishing pressure is becoming an increasingly important consideration as fishing pressure in SW Florida continues to grow,” the report reads. "If there were little or no artificial reefs locally, then, in all likelihood, the few existing natural hard bottom or ledge habitats would be bearing the full brunt of that increased fishing pressure.”

In a county that has the largest amount per capita of boat owners in the continental United States and a $2.5 billion tourism industry, creating more opportunities for fish and fishermen seems a good choice.

But fishermen aren't the only folks that flock to these reefs – scuba divers do, too – and that's something that Campbell would like to see more of.

"One of my goals is to stop exporting divers to other places,” he said. "A lot of people think that there is no good diving in the Gulf because of the low visibility, and while that may be true close to shore, once you get aways out it clears up considerably. I like the diving here – there are not many places in Florida to get that 'big fish' experience, and here in Lee we consistently have one of the largest populations of Goliath Groupers in the state. Here we can bring divers out to see 300 pound fish up close any day of the week – sometimes hundreds of them at one site!”

Lee County's Natural Resources Division works with non-profit groups such as Lee Reefs on the planning and implementation of new projects, maintenance of existing sites, monitoring reef quality, educating reef users and informing the public. According to Lee Reefs' website, "Artificial reefs created by Lee County must not only hold sea life that recreational divers enjoy and anglers want to catch, but also create viable, long-lasting marine habitat that complement the natural ledges and outcroppings that exist off the Lee County coast.”

Other reef sites include the M.A.Y. Reef, which is a ship and barge rubble reef in 20' of water a few miles out from Big Carlos Pass; the G-H Reef – a barge in 28 feet of water five miles off of Bonita Springs and the Doc Kline – another barge and concrete piling reef in 32 feet approximately 8 miles off Sanibel Island.

Campbell told us that not only do artificial reefs bring money and jobs to our area; they cost relatively little to create and maintain.

"We don't use the county's general funds to create these reefs – most are done with donations and grants,” he said. "And there are a lot of different markets for artificial reefs - for instance – there's a guy in town who has a 'memorial reef service' – a person's ashes are mixed with cement and formed into an artificial reef which is then placed offshore – he's providing a service to the public and at the same time providing a donation to the program in terms of adding an additional reef. The other good thing about artificial reefs is that – compared to other capital improvement projects – there is little to maintain as Mother Nature does most of that for us.”

Michael told us that the county also uses the reefs as a way to dispose of derelict vessels, when economically and environmentally feasible.

"My main focus these days, however, is managing the existing resources that we have,” he said. "Organizing groups of divers to 'adopt' a reef and then get businesses to sponsor them to make trips to remove monofilament line and possibly catch lionfish.”

An exception to that focus is the artificial reef that will be created by the sinking of the Mohawk – a project Campbell says he is really excited about.

"We are going to sink her on July 2nd in 90 feet of water near Charlie's Reef,” he said. "Not only is this the first military ship to be sunk on the west coast of Florida, it's going to look much like it did in wartime with all of her armament intact. This is totally different than other sunken military vessels which have all of that stripped.”

Campbell says that the ship's sinking has already created something unprecedented in Lee.

"Every dive shop is now offering charters to this thing and signing up experienced divers to get their advanced certification by diving on it,” he said. "That's a new service that's been directly created by the sinking of this ship. This will bring more dive shops and more divers to Lee County for sure.”

One of the first divers to see the wreck will undoubtedly be Joe Weatherby. A native of New Jersey, Weatherby has been making a living on the water since he was 13 and diving for over 30 years. His company, Reef Makers, is partnering with Lee County to sink the Mohawk. They also worked with the city of Key West on acquiring and sinking another World War II era ship – the Vandenberg – several years ago.

"I got involved with artificial reefs in the 1980's and formed this company about 10 years ago,” he said. "I cannot say enough about what a great investment these artificial reefs are. If someone is looking to make money and help the environment – the percentage return cannot be outdone. These things will pay for themselves very quickly. Only recently are people really starting to wrap their brains around how much commerce they actually produce.”

Mike Angelo is one of those people. A manager at Scubavice Diving Center in Fort Myers, he is very excited about the Mohawk becoming part of Lee's artificial reef system.

"We even built a float for it for the Edison Festival of Light and the Fort Myers Beach Shrimp Festival,” he said. "There's been so much interest – we've already got a charter booked for the day its getting sunk.”

Angelo says that reefs like the Mohawk bring a lot of business to this area.

"We plan to get as much use out of it as possible,” he said. "We're going to take advanced divers there for their certification dives and also use it for people wanting to get certified in technical diving and external wreck diving. We even plan to use it for photography classes.”

According to that 2009 report by the USF, Lee County government spends approximately $30,000 per year on artificial reefs, funds that are provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, statewide artificial reef programs and other grants. Not only do these reefs bring in nearly $60 million in related revenues (including $21 million spent on businesses that take people to these sites) they also are responsible for 575 full and part-time jobs and $3.89 million in business taxes.

And that's before the Mohawk joins the other reefs.

Keri Hendry