Feature - Artificial Reefs
State of the Reefs
Florida finds innovative ways to meet the demand for
new artificial reefs.
By Rick Farren
"If you build it, they will come."
That's the simple theory behind our desire to build
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outdated bridges and other concrete debris discarded by a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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.