Florida’s artificial reef system has a rich history

A school of gray snapper swim above the sunken U.S. Coast Guard cutter Duane.
A school of gray snapper swim above the sunken U.S. Coast Guard cutter Duane.

A large school of gray snapper is swimming directly at me. I aim my camera and press the shutter button just before several of the reddish gray fish bump into me. Cool. 

I am on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Duane, intentionally sunk as an artificial reef on Nov. 26, 1987, lying upright on a sandy bottom in 125 feet of water one mile south of Molasses Reef off Key Largo. 

Divers return again and again to the <i>Duane<i> for its attraction as an intact sunken ship  and to see the variety of coral, reef fish, barracuda, grouper, sea turtle, and pelagic fish (usually associated with open water) that swim in and around it. 

During the last few decades, century’s old historic Keys wrecks have been joined by ships that have been intentionally sunk to create artificial reefs home to 55 varieties of delicate coral and nearly 500 species of fish. (See http://www.fla-keys.com/news/news.cfm?sid=1958)

There is a variety of large ships in the upper keys purposely sunk as artificial reefs including the Duane, its sister ship the Bibb, the USS Spiegel Grove and the Eagle.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there are more than 2,927 public artificial reefs in state and the federal waters near Florida ranging from clean concrete materials to large ships. 

Florida is home to one of the most active artificial reef programs in the nation. The state program, legislatively created in 1982, has been administered by the FWC’s Division of Marine Fisheries Management since July 1, 1999. On Nov. 21, 2003, the FWC adopted a state artificial reef strategic plan developed by an advisory board of interested stakeholders.

Because of the extent of coastline thirty-four of Florida’s 35 coastal counties spread along 8,426 miles of tidal coastline (1,200 miles fronting the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean) have been involved in artificial reef development and monitoring.

According to the FWC, local coastal governments hold more than 300 active artificial reef permits off both Florida coasts, about half being for federal waters. Fishing clubs, nonprofit corporations and interested private individuals work through the local government permit holders to provide input into public reef building activities.  

The state artificial reef program provides financial and technical assistance to local governments, nonprofit organizations, and state universities in developing, monitoring and evaluating artificial reefs.

According to FWC, “Over the last 33 years, the Florida has distributed more than $20,232,718 for artificial reef related activities. From 1979 through fiscal year 2011-2012, Florida’s artificial reef program provided at least $15,253,084 in state and federal funding to local coastal governments for public reef construction projects. Another $3,082,524 has gone toward statewide artificial reef research projects, $1,417,256 toward reef monitoring and $479,853 toward four regional reef socioeconomic studies.” http://myfwc.com/conservation/saltwater/artificial-reefs/ar-program

Artificial reefs add new habitats and may increase populations outside the local area as well due to increased spawning opportunities from fish on the structure. They boost the economies of local communities and provide opportunities for fishing, diving, education and research. 

Lad Akins, Director of Special Projects for the Key Largo based Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), and member of the FWC artificial reef advisory panel, notes that because the artificial reefs tend to aggregate fish in relatively small areas they can attract both fishermen and divers. 

Akins says artificial reefs create opportunities for divers and fishermen, especially in the ocean waters off the Western side of Florida where there are fewer natural reefs. 

Florida Sea Grant (a university-based program that supports research, education and extension to conserve coastal resources and enhance economic opportunities for the people of Florida) conducts “Florida Artificial Reef Summits” every 4 to six years to learn about the latest in artificial reef research and management strategies. Over 200 participants from Florida, the Southeastern U.S. and foreign countries attended the 2010, meeting. https://www.flseagrant.org/fisheries/artificialreefs/summit/

The next summit is scheduled for January 13-16, 2015, in Clearwater Beach, Fla. 

Anticipated topics include site development, fisheries management, ecology, restoration, permitting and regulation. 

Summit attendees will include: fishery scientists and ecological experts; marine industry leaders and environmental engineers; artificial reef program and natural resource managers; volunteer research divers and representatives of citizen constituencies; environmental engineers, outdoor media and science writers.

After my trip to the Duane it’s time to dive one of my favorite artificial reefs, the 510 foot Spiegel Grove. Besides exploring a huge intentionally sunk ship, I anticipate seeing an enormous biodiversity including large jacks, a colony of gobies and maybe a bull shark. 

For more on Florida’s artificial reef program see: http://www.myfwc.com/conservation/saltwater/artificial-reefs/  

Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 28 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier three years ago where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers.