July 29, 2012
Artificial reefs: Better for fish or fishermen?
By Jim Waymer, Florida Today
Nazis created one of the Space Coast’s earliest artificial reefs: the 425-foot Ocean Venus, a.k.a. Lead Wreck, which a German U-boat sank May 3,1942, in 80 feet of water off Cape Canaveral.
Today, the Ocean Venus bristles with fish, a scene replicated at countless piles of steel scraps, spent rockets, barges, wooden sailboats, concrete chunks and other junk intentially sunk off the Space Coast. More than 60 such artificial reefs grace the ocean floor off Brevard County.
Manmade reefs such as these generate billions of dollars for the state from tourism and fishing. Tourism officials hope sinking more can offset grouper and snapper closures that gutted charter fishing businesses at Port Canaveral and elsewhere in recent years.
Ecologists debate whether such reefs create a net increase in fish or just lure them from natural reefs, making fish easier to catch.
Ecological debates aside, dozens of new artificial reefs will sink in coming years off east Central Florida, bringing potentially millions in tourist dollars.
• Brevard County plans to drop one new artificial reef a year, starting as early as next year. They’re eyeing former Delta rocket launch towers and other discarded structures from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center. Construction debris, defunct vessels and other manmade reefs could be sunken as well.
• Indian River County wants to sink 10 new reefs in 10 years, creating an artificial reef corridor within about four miles of Sebastian Inlet. Florida Tech researchers recently conducted side-scan sonar off the inlet to see where best to put reefs along the barren sand bottom. They’ll start sinking mostly concrete railroad ties next summer.
• Tourists spend $1.7 billion a year on fishing and diving on artificial reefs off Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, alone, economic studies show.
Tourism officials see similar potential here.
“We have our established system, now it’s a matter of adding material,” said Scott Chandler, vice president of the Florida Sportfishing Association, which helps fund new reefs off Brevard.
“We try to provide more habitat for these fish to reproduce,” the Merritt Island fisherman said. “It gives our charter boat captains more places to be successful.”
New reefs here would go about 17 miles off of Port Canaveral, in waters 76 to 88 feet deep. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit earlier this year to allow the county to add more material to an existing 4-square-mile area known as the Lois Dubois Artificial Reef.
Any new materials must be free of asphalt, creosote, petroleum and other toxic residues.
More space junk?
Barges deployed sections of Titan II rockets off Brevard in 1999. Now Brevard hopes to dump more space junk, possibly concrete and steel remnants of two defunct Delta launch towers from Launch Complex 17 at Canaveral Air Force Station, marked for demolition in 2014.
“There’s some potential for some debris from that to be used for the reef,” said Mike Blaylock, chief of natural assets for the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing. “We’re generally supportive for this kind of stuff,” he added, “but somebody’s got to be available to take it.”
The snag on any such new space-junk reef is finding a place to store the stuff until it can be barged offshore. Brevard officials hope to forge a partnership with Port Canaveral or some other entity with property along the Barge Canal, from where materials for future reefs could be deployed.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission provides grants of up to $60,000 for artificial reefs. Brevard plans to apply for one of those grants early next year and sink a new reef — concrete modules and clean cement construction debris — by this time next year.
Whether steel from old launch towers gets sunk for subsequent reefs depends on what price the military could get to recycle the metal, instead, and whether it’s contaminated with flame retardants or other toxins.
“It will have to be tested,” Blaylock said. “The old paints had PCBs in them.”
Rich in reefs
Florida has the most artificial reefs in the nation, with more than 2,700 documented in state and federal waters.
The FWC administers a state artificial reef program created by the Florida Legislature in 1982.
Among 709 publicly funded Florida artificial reefs sunken from 1994 to 2000, concrete debris dominates (43 percent) followed by concrete modules (24 percent). Military equipment, mostly armored combat tanks, makes up about 11 percent, including two U.S. Army M-60 battle tanks sunken in about 50 feet of water off of Dade County in 1994.
“These days materials are pretty restricted to limestone boulders, clean concrete materials, heavy gauge steel or combinations thereof,” said Jon Dodrill, an administrator with FWC who oversees the state’s artificial reef program.
Plastics and rubber have generally been disallowed in the past 15 years, he said.
Florida learned from past reef mishaps. In the early 1970s, Fort Lauderdale dumped 2 million tires about a mile offshore to lure fish and free up space in landfills. Decades later, scant sea life lives there and tires once held together by nylon and steel broke loose, littering more than 30 acres of ocean floor and washing up in storms.
Military dumping ground?
A WW II-era Hellcat warbird rests on the ocean floor, northeast of Sebastian Inlet, where angler Ron Rincones of Grant-Valkaria once hooked a plump grouper.
“They’re kind of a mixed blessing,” Rincones said of artificial reefs. “They congregate the fish making them easier targets,” he said. “They’re good for divers to jump on and shoot stuff and they’re good for the fishing guides to catch bait on them.”
Local fishing and diving groups pine for more military junk, like maybe a Navy ship or other large vessels. But those also have proven problematic in the past, and tough to get. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2006 set forth guidelines for how asbestos, paints, oils and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) must be removed before ships are sunk.
In 2003, former President George W. Bush signed a bill that allowed decommissioned military ships to be donated for artificial reefs. But the price of steel has recently made it more attractive to sell them for recycling.
The U.S. Navy’s SINKEX — short for sinking exercises — training program uses old warships for target practice, allowing pilots to sink them offshore.
But the military put a nearly 2-year moratorium on the program because of environmental and cost concerns. Earlier this summer, the Navy lifted that ban.
Basel Action Network, a nonprofit group based in based in Seattle, Washington, has sued EPA to try and stop the military from sinking more ships as reefs. They point to the USS Oriskany, sunk about 27 miles southeast of Pensacola in 2006. Within a year, PCBs in fish reached almost twice what the Navy predicted they would, and above Florida Department of Health standards. The ship contained an estimated 680,000 pounds of PCBs.
Average PCBs in fish sampled near the ship increased 15 fold, but have since dropped within safer levels.
PCBs can cause cancer. They persist in paint, gaskets, cable insulation, transformers, capacitors, and other components of decommissioned Navy ships and other large vessels.
“They basically took the most environmentally unfriendly ship they had, as sort of a test,” said Dodrill, of FWC.
BAN argues artificial reefs waste otherwise valuable steel and other recyclable commodities along the ocean floor.
The Navy, for example, has dumped 600,000 tons of recyclable steel, aluminum and copper at sea during the past decade, valued at $600 million in today’s commodity prices, according to BAN.
“Recycle it, don’t drop it in the sea,” says Colby Self, director of BAN’s green ship recycling campaign. “I’m sure it’s only a matter of time that we realize that all this junk we’ve thrown down there does more harm than it claims to be doing good.”
The tire reef off Fort Lauderdale proves how the unforeseen can bite back years later, he says.
Self also doubts the health safety of ships as reefs, and whether artificial structures even increase fish populations.
“When you identify that location, you’re going to be extracting more fish than would have otherwise occurred,” Self said.
Greg Clifford, president of Sebastian Inlet Sportfishing Association, disagrees.
“It’s a proven means to increasing habitat,” Clifford said. “You could draw similarities to planting mangroves. What it does is provide more habitat to certain types of fish to breed and live where normally those types of species wouldn’t exist.”
But a net increase in fish populations? Beyond what the fish anglers and divers witness on the reefs, biologists say the jury’s out on that question, and depends on the objective of the reef.
An FWC and University of Florida experiment in the Northeastern Gulf of Mexico aims to answer that question. The study, funded by BP as a result of the 2010 oil spill, this month finished dropping 90 prefabricated concrete blocks to study how effective artificial reefs are in growing gag grouper and other fish populations.
“There’s no doubt the complexity of those structures will provide a haven for those fish seeking to have shelter,” said Bill Lindberg, a professor of fisheries science at the University of Florida. “But if everybody and their brother knows about it, what you’ll probably see is juvenile fish occupying it. If the reefs are well known, the size distribution of the fish is pretty much cut at the legal limit.”
That means fishermen harvest the grouper and snapper before they grow large enough to spawn. “It’s not the panacea that a lot of folks would like to think,” Lindberg said. “We would like to think there’s a silver bullet.”
In terms of tourism, however, artificial reefs are proven gold.
“It’s not chump change,” Lindberg said of the economic potential. “The reality is that reefs are popular because they do enhance the experience for fishermen.”
Photo: Marine life has already blossomed on this concrete submerged last year in the Gulf of Mexico.