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Thursday, Nov 03, 2005
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Posted on Thu, Nov. 03, 2005

Reefs keep businesses afloat

Herald Staff Writer

The economic benefits of Manatee County's largest unnatural wonder - an offshore system of 13 artificial reefs well-known to fishermen, divers and fish - have yet to be measured.

Colonized by corals, sponges and mollusks, the reef helps mitigate underwater habitat lost to beach renourishment and attracts the snapper, grouper and mackerel that keep tourists coming back. The reef has also spawned business for several companies.

Manatee County has not conducted an economic impact study of its reef system since it was started in the mid-1970s. Such studies are expensive and erode funds set aside for reef building, said Bill O'Shea, environmental manager of coastal programs for Manatee County.

But studies of other reefs throughout the state show their economic impact on local economies. A study done in Martin County on Florida's east coast in 2003 showed that artificial reefs there generated $13.1 million in revenue and provided for 182 jobs.

Another study done in a five-county area of the Florida Panhandle in 1998 showed that for every dollar spent on artificial reefs, there was a $134 return to the community in the form of tourist spending on items like tackle, food and lodging.

"When you say 'artificial reef' to someone who doesn't fish or dive, they look at you and say: 'What are you talking about?' " said John Stevely, marine extension agent with the Florida Sea Grant Program in Manatee County.

What Stevely is talking about is the almost 20,000 registered boats in Manatee County. A recent project by the Sea Grant Program showed the area was a popular destination for boaters throughout Tampa Bay and inland waters.

Statewide, recreational fishing has an economic impact of around $5 billion.

For business owners who depend on local underwater habitats to make a living, calculating the true dollar value of the area's artificial reefs would be difficult, says Al Jeffrey, owner of 13 Scuba Quest Dive Centers in southwest Florida. "It's invaluable," he said.

Diving instructor Pam Silagyi heads out to the reef three times a week in the summer. Artificial reef material provides an instant food chain starting with the tiniest crustacean and extending to the largest game fish, she said.

"Within days (of formation), the reef starts to come to life," she said. "Almost instantly. It's amazing."

Manatee County's reef program is one of the largest and most progressive in Florida, said Jon Dodrill, artificial-reef coordinator for the state's Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission in Tallahassee.

Boat captains don't usually brag about it too much, said Susan Estler, public relations manager for the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"As far as the impact on tourism, we suspect its been kept rather low-key by the fishing captains because they have their own spots that they like to go," Estler said. "It's not something they talk about with other people."

The fish and wildlife commission helps local governments monitor and assess reefs, providing grants and developing statewide strategic plans.

Placement of reef material is subject to permitting by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The bottom must be mapped and the material contaminant-free.

"It's not like there's a big blank check from either state or county government," Stevely said. "Keeping the program going has been a challenge."

Manatee's reefs consist of a combination of "materials of opportunity" like rip-rap, remains from the old Skyway Bridge and a manufactured concrete product called reef balls. Tires, car bodies and old washing machines were inappropriately used in the past on artificial reefs. Dumping such materials today is a first-degree misdemeanor and carries fines of up to $5,000, Dodrill said.

Businesses created

Other businesses besides dive shops and fishing charters have sprung up to meet demands associated with artificial reefs. Reef Ball Foundation Inc. and Eternal Reefs are two such companies.

Manatee County is a client of the Reef Ball Foundation, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that has put one million concrete reef balls in 50 countries. The company was co-founded by Todd Barber, a 12-year Manatee resident living temporarily in North Carolina.

A scuba diver, Barber started the company after Hurricane Gilbert wiped out a favorite reef spot where he habitually returned to photograph natural corals and measure their progress.

Reef balls are prefabricated concrete balls with a hollow center, a rough surface texture and vortex-shaped holes. They give shelter to fish and marine life and range in size from a basketball to a Volkswagon. They cost between $45 and $300 apiece.

Free material such as concrete culverts and demolished bridges sometimes ends up costing more and taking longer to deploy than the prefabricated ones, said the county's O'Shea. "Sometimes it's old bridge parts or light posts with steel rebar which has to be cleaned and could present a hazard to divers," O'Shea said.

Manatee County bought 315 reef balls in fiscal year 2005 at a cost of $60,000. The material was paid for partly with $25,000 in county taxes. Manatee also received a $40,000 grant from the state Fish & Wildlife Commission and split $25,000 in funding with Sarasota County from the Sarasota Bay Estuary program.

Reef balls are used mostly in the county's near-shore reefs, where the limited depth demands tighter control over the quality of material used to prevent diver and boater damage.

Burial at sea

Georgia-based Eternal Reefs is a spinoff of Reef Balls. For a price, the company will cast your loved one's ashes in a concrete reef ball and deploy it at a memorial service at sea.

The Sarasota-Bradenton area is a popular spot for deployment, according to Eternal Reefs CEO George Frankel.

Since its inception four years ago, Eternal Reefs has memorialized the remains of more than 300 people, with close to half of them coming to rest on Bradenton-Sarasota area reefs.

Costs for the service range from $995 for a community memorial to $4,995 for up to four family members on the same reef.

The remains of one woman, her first and second husband and the second husband's first wife were cast into the concrete of a single reef ball weighing 3,500 to 4,000 pounds and measuring 6 feet across, Frankel said.

It's a win-win-win scenario for the company, its clients and local governments, Frankel said.

"They're getting the reef balls they would normally be paying for at no cost to the taxpayer," he said. "These become permanent living legacies and they enhance the local fisheries and the local economy."

Brian Dombrowski, a Sarasota-based underwater photographer with Sub Surface Media, has been assigned to photograph some of the area's memorial reef balls.

As a diver, the concept of an underwater memorial appeals to him on several levels, he said.

"I've been diving forever and I'm interested in being buried in a reef ball," Dombrowski said. "I've spent so much time photographing and videotaping the underwater environment. This is a type of photography that could raise income, not necessarily because it's the most gorgeous water but because it's a memorial."

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