Destinations

World’s Largest Artificial Reef Project to Boost Florida Tourism

Apr 13, 2014 12:00 pm

Skift Take

These reefs, built on the foundation of BP’s transgressions in the Gulf, should draw lots of visitors to Florida. The only living things that will enjoy these reefs more than the tourists will be the fish.

— Dennis Schaal

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Dan Thomas  / Flickr.com

A BP fund that grew out of the Gulf oil spill will be used to build a giant artificial reef in the area to protect the environment and attact tourism. Pictured, a beach as seen from a pier in Naples, Florida, May 17, 2008. Dan Thomas / Flickr.com


There’s The Sheriff, The Kid, Sparky Lee Hole, Annie’s Reef and Houla Dog.

Those are among the artificial reefs in Collier County, Florida, waters that aren’t verified by GPS — many obliterated by hurricanes, turbulent waves and currents that buried them in sand.

That leaves fishes and other marine life with nowhere to live or hide from predators in the Gulf. With no marine life congregating in reefs, it hurts marine ecology and affects tourism.

Now, thanks to more than $1.3 million in grants from BP’s Gulf Tourism and Seafood Promotional Fund to Naples, Marco Island and Collier County, the three governments — along with the Community Foundation of Collier County and the Economic Recovery Task Force — have embarked on one of the world’s largest artificial reef projects: six 500-ton reefs the size of football fields, each containing six smaller pyramid-shaped reef modules 8 to 12 feet high.

The 18,000 tons of recycled and donated concrete will be sunk 12 to 30 miles from shore.

“The benefits of a project of this scale and importance are far-reaching, both environmentally and economically,” said Naples attorney Peter Flood, a fisherman who approached the task force with the idea in 2011, suggesting the private and public sectors join to help boost the marine habitat. “Fish have to have structures to live in. We need to increase our fish population. It will have an economic impact on the community by attracting more tourism.”

The project is expected to launch diving as a tourism industry here and attract high-dollar fishing tournaments that will be promoted nationally. It is also expected to bring the area $30 million over the coming years by boosting eco-tourism, hotel stays, dining, shopping, boating, fishing and diving trips, bait shop revenues and others, according to statistics extrapolated from a 2011 University of Florida Sea Grant report.

For a $100,000 tax-deductible donation to the non-profit foundation, a person, family or business can name one of the six quarter-mile by quarter-mile reefs, which will last nearly 1,000 years.

“There are people who want to leave a legacy to their husband or their wife or child,” said Diane Flagg, Economic Recovery Task Force co-chair. “So when all the nautical maps and navigational maps in the world come out, they will have that name on that location. It’ll be forever.”

There will be two naming opportunities for each government. Each donor’s name will be part of an Army Corps of Engineers permit application, she said, adding that when permits are issued, possibly this fall, each reef will carry a donor’s name and GPS location. Donors will receive a certificate with the information. Moving forward with the project is dependent on securing the naming rights.

If you can’t afford $100,000, a $2,500 donation will earn a name on a plaque on the smaller reefs, visible to divers. There’s no limit to those naming opportunities.

Naples residents Sandy and Elhanon Combs made the first $2,500 donation last month.

“This is an exciting project that provides environmental and economic benefits,” said Elhanon Combs, 90.

Their plaque will be placed on a pyramid reef module or on one of 60 100-pound park benches Naples collected.

“We’re going to put the benches at the reef sites,” Mike Bauer, Naples natural resources manager, told city council last month, when it approved an agreement involving naming rights. “We could have people sitting down there. Picture that in your minds.”

Underwater selfies?

Flood explained: “We’re going to place them upright so divers can take their pictures.”

Since last year, contractors delivered more than 5,000 tons of culvert pipes, sidewalks, limestone boulders, concrete chunks and benches to the landfill, said county Solid & Hazardous Waste Department employee Angel Rodriguez, the reef materials collection team project manager. Those items will become part of the reefs.

FPL, a corporate sponsor, delivered more than 100 40-foot concrete light poles, he said, adding that contractors can arrange to drop off concrete or limestone materials that are at least 500 pounds and 3 to 6 feet.

“The more, the merrier,” Rodriguez said. “There’s no taxpayer money going into this.”

On May 13, county commissioners are expected to approve an agreement with a contractor that will create the small limestone and concrete reefs and transport the concrete from the landfill to a barge, where they’ll be pushed into the Gulf to create the large reefs.

“Fish start congregating 12 hours after a reef is created,” Flood said.

The project team is working with Heyward Mathews, a St. Petersburg College professor emeritus who teaches oceanography and is known as “The Reef Doctor” due to his work monitoring local natural and artificial reef fish and invertebrate populations. He started the 33-year-old Pinellas County Artificial Reef program and his nonprofit, Reef Monitoring Inc., trains divers to monitor artificial reef populations.

“Fish travel north and there’s no place for them to stop now,” Flagg said. “We’re creating homes. Right now, when you talk to divers, they don’t dive in Naples because there’s nothing to look at.”

In July 2012, the retired Coast Guard cutter USS Mohawk, a 165-foot World War II-era vessel, was dropped 28 miles off Fort Myers Beach as part of Lee County’s artificial reef program. Flood said that $4 million project is expected to last only 85 years due to saltwater deterioration, but this project’s budget is $3.7 million and its life expectancy is 750-850 years.

“They’ve seen certain species of fish they haven’t seen in years,” he said of the Mohawk. “That’s why we’re going all concrete.” ___

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