© 2024 | WUWF Public Media
11000 University Parkway
Pensacola, FL 32514
850 474-2787
NPR for Florida's Great Northwest
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New artificial reefs program set to begin with project off Key West

 A diver surveys marine life in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Greg McFall
A diver surveys marine life in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

A new artificial reefs program that scientists hope will help reduce stress on the Florida Keys' fragile marine ecosystem has started this month — with the first project off Key West already in the works.

Also known as habitat support structures, artificial reefs have been in development for decades. They aim to preserve fish populations and other marine resources as natural reef systems continue to collapse, but their implementation and long-term sustainability are complicated.

Artificial reefs are not a new discussion in Florida. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission lists 62 artificial reef structures across Monroe County, with the oldest dating back to a sunken submarine in 1945.

Many artificial reef structures were implemented in the mid to late 80s, according to a county spokesperson. The most recent was the sinking of the USNS General Hoyt S. Vanderberg in 2009 — a project pioneered by Captain Joe Weatherby, a longtime Key West diver and fisher who recently passed away.

But Monroe County is now taking on the complex topic of manmade marine habitat support with the first official county-led program. Reef restoration and support in South Florida has come into even more focus with last summer's record heat wave causing a massive coral bleaching event.

Dr. Hanna Koch, Monroe County’s first Artificial Reefs director , unveiled more details of the new program this week — and revealed that its budget is set to be boosted with new funding.

Koch , who was announced as the director of the new program in February and began work April 1, told WLRN she’s dedicated to ensuring that the program’s projects are sustainable for the future of Florida Keys marine ecosystems.

“It’s the lifeblood down here,” she said. “It’s our culture and it’s our lifestyle.”

READ MORE: Miami Beach hybrid reef could help Florida coasts battle climate change

The program is being supported by a $10 million state-funded Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission grant to the county. Another $5 million was recently appropriated and is waiting for the Governor’s signature, according to Koch. It means that the program, originally set to run through 2028, could extend through 2029.

At an introductory presentation to a marine advisory committee and county commissioners this week, Koch outlined what the county’s newest artificial reefs program hopes to accomplish.

Koch pointed to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study that found that artificial reefs could support comparable levels of fish density and diversity to natural reefs — when location studies are applied.

The first project

Koch anticipates a variety of projects with different intentions.

The first of these will likely involve 37 concrete poles, about 55-feet long, which have been donated by the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative from their Sea Oats Beach project in Islamorada.

The proposed area for the project, which was previously undisclosed, is Gulfside 10 Mile Reef, about 16 miles north of Key West in federal waters.

The deployment of these habitat support structures would be a “proof of method” project that would set the stage for others.

Concerns over artificial reefs include the failure of materials, and on-site placement as well as the potential for over-harvesting. Man-made structures like fiberglass boats and tires have been used in the past as artificial reefs but have proven problematic. That’s why FWC regulates the kind of materials allowed for permit approval. Allowable materials include concrete, limestone boulders and heavy-gage steel.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission deploys artificial reef modules off the coast of Mexico Beach on April 6, 2013.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission/Flickr, CC BY-ND
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission deploys artificial reef modules off the coast of Mexico Beach on April 6, 2013.

“One of the biggest hurdles is just going to be finding the right middle ground between expectations of getting things done quickly with getting them done the right way,” Koch told WLRN.

A permit to deploy the poles was submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in February, according to Koch. She anticipates it taking anywhere from 6 months to a year before the permit is approved or denied.

“This is a new program,” Koch told the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory council members . “There are habitat support structures in Monroe County and in the Keys but a lot has changed in terms of the landscape of the players, vendors, contractors and cost of things.”

Koch said the program aims to set up a framework for design, placement, monitoring and maintenance of future habitat support structures.

“These structures should address habitat deficits,” she said.

She’s hoping to take a holistic approach that's science-driven when designing, deploying and evaluating the habitat support structures across the Keys.

One of her goals for the program is to develop a system to better monitor habitat support structures both before and after they're placed on the seafloor and ongoing biological surveys that can determine the health and density of marine creatures interacting with them.

Copyright 2024 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Julia Cooper