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Lee bounces into Reef Ball project with sinking off Sanibel

 Published by on June 12, 2004

Lee County’s latest artificial reef, which went down Friday, is a whole new ballgame — Reef Ball, that is.

2000 lb concrete Reef Balls were lowered into plce friday morning, creating Lee County’s newest artificial reef.
Chops Hancock/Special to
For only the second time, the Lee County Division of Natural Resources has bought prefabricated modules to make a reef, spending $16,440 on 84 concrete structures called Reef Balls.

Most of the county’s reefs, on 19 sites in the Gulf of Mexico and Charlotte Harbor, are made from donated material, such as concrete culverts, bridge rubble and boats.

But Reef Balls, distributed by Reef Innovations Inc., whose manufacturing plant is in Sarasota, have been getting rave reviews from Florida and around the world.

One satisfied customer is Nova Southeastern University’s Oceanographic Center, whose scientists placed Reef Balls in an area of coral reef off Fort Lauderdale that was damaged when a U.S. submarine ran aground in 1993.

“We’re using Reef Balls, not as a restoration item per se, but as a module to test scientific experiments,” said Richard Dodge, dean of the Oceanographic Center. “We’ve had great success with that as a module. We like them. They’re doing well. Other people have used them in other ways, and I think they’ve been successful as well.”

With the attitude of “why buy the cow if the milk’s free?” county marine biologist Chris Koepfer decided to test the expensive Reef Balls against reefs made from donated material.

“I’ve been satisfied with how the donated material performs,” he said. “I really want to compare Reef Balls, which cost a lot of money, to material that doesn’t cost money to see if there is a corresponding increase in productivity.

“These things better show me a factor of 10 improvement over the other stuff.”
In-depth: Special section on the environment in Southwest Florida
Lee's reefs: See where the county's artificials reefs are located
Koepfer chose the ARC Barge reef site, 15 miles off Sanibel in 60 feet of water, for the experiment because several other artificial reefs are already there, including a barge, concrete culverts, concrete pilings, three 25-foot-tall steel radio towers and concrete tetrahedrons (the first modules the county bought).

Having all these reefs close to the Reef Balls, which look a little like Hostess Sno Balls with holes (for fish to hide in), will make comparisons easy.

Using state and federal grants, which cost Lee County taxpayers nothing, Koepfer bought 24 5-feet-tall, 2-ton Reef Balls and 60 that are 3 feet tall and 1 ton.

His idea was to create four “patch reefs,” each with six large modules surrounded by 16 small modules.

The deployment Friday was more difficult than anticipated, certainly more difficult than most artificial reefs.

With many reefs, including culverts, pilings and bridge rubble, the material is barged to the site and simply dumped into the water.

But Keopfer’s plan called for the Reef Balls to be placed in precise relation to one another.

To do that, buoys were tied to the large Reef Balls before they were lowered by a crane from a McCulley Marine Inc. barge.

The buoys were to show the center of the ring, so the small modules could be placed accordingly.

But the buoy lines kept getting twisted, slowing down the process, and county engineering technologists Mike Capps and Paul Stancati spent much of the day in the water untangling the mess.

Lee County marine biologist Chris Koepfer checks the county’s new Reef Balls and artificial reef placed on the Gulf floor Friday morning.
Chops Hancock/Special to
Another problem was the pins that held the Reef Balls to the cable often didn’t release when the modules reached the bottom the first time, and several attempts had to be made.

Finally, high winds and currents pushed the barge around, making accurate placement of the modules even more difficult.

Apparently longing for the simpler method of dumping reef material, Koepfer referred to the Reef Balls several times as “that fancy schmancy material.”

After 41⁄2 hours of tangled buoy lines and frustration, the Reef Balls were all in place, not exactly where they were supposed to be, but close enough.

The first fish visitors were three goliath grouper, five barracuda and a bar jack, all of which probably swam over from the nearby radio towers to see what the commotion was all about.

“I’m sure these will make an excellent reef,” Koepfer said. “But next time I come out, I think I’ll wear socks, because it will have to knock my socks off to justify the expense.”

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