Since 1990 Hernando County has been active in artificial reef development. Funding is provided by a combination of federal, state and local government, as well as private funds. This is done through the Division of Marine Fisheries Management of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The FWC assists in developing these reefs, enhancing existing reefs that are already successful and to monitor and assess artificial reefs. According to Frank Santo, chairman of the Hernando County Port Authority, there has been a a large grassroots effort by Hernando County which has had a huge impact on Hernando County’s marine system. These state and federal programs are driven by the recognition of benefits for commercial fishing and tourism. Commercially important fish and sports species are frequently attracted to the artificial reefs for the food source and shelter they provide. As larger fish species migrate through the area in the spring and fall the artificial reefs provide shelter, food and resting areas for such fish as albacore, king fish, Spanish mackerel and cobia. Artificial reefs remain very popular with the fishing public and contribute significantly to local economies.
There are numerous considerations for artificial reef placement. Some individuals may be concerned that artificial reef structures may dislodge and be a detriment to the shore. According to research by Ryan Fikes Staff Scientist, with the Gulf Restoration Campaign National Wildlife Federation in an article in November 2013 titled Artificial Reefs of the Gulf of Mexico: A Review of Gulf State Programs & Key Considerations, artificial reefs need to be placed in clear shallow water with good light. “Water depth at the reef site may critically affect reef material stability and long-term structural integrity” when considering wave conditions. “The reef materials and designs should be properly matched to water depth and predicted wave conditions to ensure their stability. Planning for worst-case storms may need to be considered on sites where movement of materials would be detrimental or hazardous”. The reef material design needs to be matched to the water depth and predicted wave condition to resist breakup, movement or burial. Detailed engineering is important for the success of an artificial reef.
There are few natural reefs in Hernando County and they tend to be over-fished. So artificial reefs allow distribution, growth, and protection of marine life. This relieves the pressure on the natural reefs. Due to the importance of site placement, careful planning and permitting is required as artificial reefs need to be placed near seagrass beds but have to be at least 150 feet away. Hernando County has a rich seagrass bed of 190,000 acres. The bottom is flat and sandy with seagrass interspersed between hard bottom areas. Hernando County seafloor has no structure only flat with occasional holes. Naturally occurring reefs develop over hard, rocky bottoms. Areas between natural reefs are often loose sand that supports marine grasses, such as eelgrass or turtle grass. The seagrass beds support many species and are important in the ecology of adjacent reef systems, providing foraging and breeding sites for reef fish. They provide food, habitat, and nursery areas for numerous vertebrate and invertebrate species. They are the ideal environment for juvenile and small adult fish for escape from larger predators. Many small organisms live in the soft sea bottom like crabs, clams, and starfish for protection from currents. Initial monitoring of new artificial reefs which are placed near seagrass indicate after testing of the first week, there are already juvenile grouper living on the reef.
Much research has been completed internationally in regards to the benefits of artificial reef development. Researchers Gary M. Serviss and Steven Sauers, who were the principal investigators in a detailed research article published in 2003, Sarasota Bay Juvenile Fisheries Habitat Assessment, proved positive impact of these reefs. Although they found the natural reef sites had a higher density of resident and transient species, the artificial sites had a slightly higher mean density of nursery fish. Monitoring indicated that the habitats are doing fairly well when compared to that of the natural habitat types. Their research found that many of the reef-dependent species such as tomtate, gray snapper, and gag grouper were observed and this also held true for the commercially important stone crab. The researchers also found that the diversity of the species tended to increase with the complexity of the material. More crevices provided more safety from predators. Also, the older the artificial reef the higher the diversity of adult fish and fewer juveniles. They found the less uneven surfaces like “concrete block, generally did not provide the number of protected spaces needed for some of the species to successfully habitate. This material type generally had low numbers and low species diversity. However, increasing the complexity of a concrete block pile with the presence of reef balls greatly improved the diversity and numbers of fish species present.” This resulted in a wide variety of different species with four size classes, from the early juvenile stage of some up to the largest adult stages.
Mr. Santo stated that initially there was not much interest in the community for these projects, but now our county administrators have realized these artificial reefs have increased tourism and have had a sound environmental impact. As a result, Hernando County is getting respect among fisherman and the state for the advancement of protecting and enhancing our very important marine system.
There are currently a number of artificial reefs in Hernando County which include but are not limited to, Bendickson Reef where there are 10 M60 army tanks placed in 1995, these are now overgrown with sea and fish life. Permits were recently approved and an additional 600 tons were added to the reef. Monitoring will be provided by FWC and Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), and US Army Corp of Engineers (ACOE). The Florida artificial reef program is the only state program that is not exclusively run at a state agency level. FWC depends on its partnership with local counties to hold reef permits and manage new reef deployments.
Another artificial reef is reef project #1 which is a shallow reef project with 130 reef balls in 3 different spots. These aHre carefully researched locations. Monitoring is planned for April 15th by the Scubanauts, who are coming to assess the fish populations and new life growing on the artificial reef. The Scubanauts are students in a marine science education for young men and women, ages 12-18. These young marine scientists receive informal science education through underwater exploration focusing on diving experience, and personal development. Hernando County is fortunate to have these young scientists available to assist our community in our marine research.
Hernando County is also in the process of investigating 20 different sites where the next batch of material will be placed. The reef ball material is available and site planning and permitting is ongoing. Permitting is the responsibility of the ACOE in federal waters and by both the ACOE and the FDEP in state waters. Both agencies work with the FWC during the artificial reef application process. Sponsorships are now being offered through the Hernando Environmental Land Protectors (HELP). HELP is a not-for-profit corporation created in 1976 and is one of the oldest established environmental organizations in Hernando County. Through this organization, an individual or business can sponsor a reef ball. The reef balls will include permanent commemorative plaques and the location coordinates will be provided to the sponsors so they may visit their reef in the future. The sponsored reefs will also provide educational opportunities, as well as great fishing spots. All deployments will be monitored by Scubanauts International and data analyzed by the students of the University of Florida and other research institutions. Artificial reef projects are monitored by a variety of sources such as the Scubanauts, and sonar imaging of the seafloor and remotely operated underwater video. These assessments include fish censuses and mapping, reef spacing and design, material stability, storm impacts and comparisons of artificial reef fish communities with those on adjacent natural reefs.
Approval has also been received for development of an oyster reef and habitat restoration project in Centipede Bay. Research has proven that placement of oyster shell in bags will stimulate the growth of juvenile oysters, improve water quality and reduce shoreline erosion. On March 11, community volunteers loaded bags of specially processed and disinfected oyster shell to be returned to the sea for oyster regeneration. This was sponsored by UF /IFAS extension. Oyster beds are dying in the state of Florida because of freshwater intrusion and lack of nutrients. Hernando County has a rich area of nutrients. The tentative launch date for the oyster beds is April 2018.
Florida is responding to fisheries and habitat decline with one of the nation’s most progressive artificial reef program, with Hernando County being one of the leaders in the state.
For information on sponsored reefs, contact Frank Santo 352-200-0493 / FASanto@tampabay.rr.com