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Artificial Reefs: Thriving Underwater Habitats on Florida's Adventure Coast Update by Keith Kolasa, Hernando County Aquatics Services Manager

It’s been a very busy and exciting year for artificial reef deployments on Florida's Adventure Coast. Last August one of the County’s oldest offshore artificial reefs was tripled in size, followed by the creation of three new snorkeling reefs in mid-November.

Last year's first offshore deployment took place some 20nm west of Hernando Beach at the Bendickson Reef site. This site, known as “The Tanks,” is the home of ten US Army Sherman M-60 tanks and is already a popular destination for fisherman, scuba divers, and free divers. M-60 tanks are not commonly seen on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, so diving on these massive machines provide visitors with a very memorable underwater experience.

Bendickson Reef existing structures - Sherman M-60 tanks donated by the U.S. Army, deployed in 1995 as part of operation REEFX

Last August over 650 tons of concrete material were deployed near the Army tanks at three different locations along the north side of the permitted reef track.

The material was added to create additional structure for fish habitat and to enhance diving opportunities at this popular destination. The three new areas create a trail of structures along the north side of the reef.

Concrete reef material before deployment
Same material one year later.

A wide range of fish friendly materials were deployed to maximize habitat quality, diversity, and vertical relief needed for increasing fish productivity. These included massive box culverts, numerous four to six foot wide round and elliptical concrete culverts, over 30 miscellaneous junction boxes and manhole basins, and approximately 210 smaller diameter concrete pipes ranging in size from 15 inches to 36 inches.

Lindberg cubes

Custom fabricated pyramid modules and reef cubes constructed by the reef contractor (Coleen Marine) were also deployed increasing reef complexity that attracts and holds fish.

Thanks Captains Houck and Mullane of Coleen Marine.

All of the materials deployed were provided by the contractor and shipped from the contractor’s facility in the Florida Panhandle with the barge captain carefully transporting the material over 225 miles to reach the Bendickson Reef site.

Bendickson reef material departing Port St Joe in the Florida Panhandle enroute to Hernando County, Courtesy of Coleen Marine
Barge containing reef material arriving on site August 25, 2017
Deployment photos during unusually calms seas, 20 nm offshore.

Each of the three new deployment sites and their coordinates are provided within the Table below.

Coordinates of New Artificial Reefs
(Top) Snook (Left) lookdowns, bluefish and massive schools of bait. (Right) goliath grouper. Photos courtesy of Scubanauts, International

Recent fish survey dives completed in June recorded schools of baitfish so thick that they appeared as underwater walls blocking a clear view of the new material. Many different species of fish have taken up residence on the new material, including gag grouper of all life stages, mangrove snapper, sheepshead, hogfish, Spanish mackerel, queen angelfish, Atlantic spadefish, and even schools of snook.

As an avid diver I would have to say that the most remarkable new structures to explore are the massive box culverts each weighing over 30,000 lbs. Each of these are inner stacked with smaller culverts creating all sorts of complex spaces for fish. Standing vertical 10 to 12 feet tall, these structures provide the greatest vertical relief, attracting large schools of baitfish.

Resting near the bottom on the sand divers can watch the schools of bait fish circling the structures above as they are under constant attack by Spanish mackerel and large mangrove snapper. Fish productivity around these structures is impressive, and it’s likely these structures will also attract king fish and amberjack in the fall and spring as the reefs become more established.

Reefballs

Moving closer to shore, three shallow snorkeling reefs were also created in November with deployment completed by Reef Innovations.

Reefball deployment, November 2017
Reefball Reef, Site B

This project was the first of its kind within the Adventure Coast, creating shallow water high relief structures that provide maximum interstitial space needed for creating refuge areas for schooling baitfish and foraging areas for fish migrating in and out of the Weeki Wachee estuary.

Reefball Reef, Site B

Each site is comprised of a linear array of 1400 lb reefballs deployed in natural sand depressions with 57 reefballs deployed at the largest of the three sites, Site B.

Site C contains 53 reefballs and the smallest site, Site A, contains 25 reefballs. All of the sites are located within close proximity (2 to 3.5 miles) of the Bayport and Hernando Beach channel lighted entrances. These new aquatic habitats rest among sprawling seagrass meadows dotted with blue-eyed bay scallops.

Scallop in seagrass perfect for a snorkeler to grab during the summertime recreational harvest season.

The great thing about this area is water clarity; it's usually very good within the seagrass meadows, making the reefball reefs a great place to snorkel and view all types of marine life.

Reefball seven months after deployment
Recent fish surveys revealed the reefballs reefs are functioning well, providing habitat for juvenile grouper, mangrove snapper, white grunt, sea bass, and sheepshead. Although the reefs have only been deployed for eight months, other marine life observed include small nurse sharks, several green sea turtles, and one loggerhead sea turtle.
(Top) Snook (Left) Sheepshead (Right) Nurse Shark

The reefball arrays have an added education benefit as well. Due to their close proximity to shore, the reefs are being monitored by students with Scubanauts International and plans are being made to engage other local schools. Students have the opportunity to learn how to identify marine life within our coastal waters and also monitor which species inhabit the reef modules.

Diver recording artificial reef activity

After a year of reef-building milestones, divers will find new material deployed at “The Tanks” and reefball sites intriguing places to explore. These are sure to become favorite fishing spots as well. The new reefball arrays are a great place for families to explore in shallow water and provides anglers nearshore fishing opportunities.

Please remember to post your dive flag in clear sight and take a diver buoy if snorkeling for extra visibility for other boaters to see your location.
The marine life on these shallow sites is typically visible from the surface since the water depth is only 12ft to 15ft deep.
Thank you.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank both the Hernando County Port Authority and Hernando County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) who made these projects possible through their support. Funding for the shallow reef arrays was provided by the BOCC with Commissioner Wayne Dukes spearheading efforts to obtain funds. In addition, funding for the Bendickson Reef expansion was provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Artificial Reef Program and would not have been possible without the state’s financial resources and assistance.

Check back for future artificial reef project updates.

There are several large reefs in planning utilizing funds through the BP oil spill recovery funds (RESTORE Act) and we anticipate that there will be more good news to report on the expansion of fishing and diving opportunities along Florida’s Adventure Coast. Fins Up and Please Boat Safely!

Created By
Keith Kolasa
Appreciate

Credits:

Photos by Keith Kolasa and Scubanauts, International.

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