Paradise’s Seascape: The Artificial Reef Project

On Thursday, January 8, the largest artificial reef project in the Western Hemisphere will commence at the north end of the Marco Island Bridge. After nearly three years of planning, tracking down grants and going through an extensive permit process, construction will begin on an artificial reef tract that will run from Marco Island to north Naples, laying thousands of tons of concrete in six distinct reef structures, recruiting an untold number of fish species and invertebrates, helping improve the overall ecosystem health of the Gulf of Mexico, and creating a new, dynamic destination for underwater eco-adventurers and fishermen alike.

Artificial Reef Project - Naples, Marco Island and Collier County

Interested in being a part of history? Join the Artificial Reef Project team on January 8 at 10 a.m. for the Reef Deployment Ceremony. Transportation will be available from the Marco Island Marina – buses will leave at 9:15 a.m. – public is welcome.

Hit the water on January 9 as a flotilla will join the first barge to reef site (Latitude 26.032839*; Longitude 81.975276*) for the laying of the “corner stone.” No boat, no problem: get a ride aboard the Key West Express, departing from Rose Marina. The public is welcome, but must secure a reservation with Russ Burland,

  • The public is welcome to both events.

   It is hard to overstate the importance of Florida’s coral reef system. Simply put, it is why we are all here. The delicate balance of life that created the coralline structure helps protect land from storms and storm surge, offers a home and food for innumerable fish species, and is the backbone of the state’s tourism industry. Yet, the coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico have seen a steady decline—a trend, unfortunately, that is spreading the world over. And since coral is such a delicate organism, needing the perfect conditions to recruit and form the colonies known as reefs, manmade artificial reefs (concrete) make for a great substitute—and an excellent recruitment tool of corals and sponges—for the underwater ecosystem. “After 20 years of living here and fishing, I noticed the current reef structures were beginning to fail,” said Peter Flood, via the Artificial Reef Fund’s promotional video.

Whitetip Reef Shark - Artificial Reef Project - Angelo Villagomez

Photo by Angelo Villagomez/Marine Photobank

   A Naples attorney and avid fisherman, Flood joined with the Collier County’s Economic Recovery Task Force (ERTF) in 2011 to create the Artificial Reef Project. Pooling together a group of local business leaders, ERTF members, volunteers, experts in artificial marine ecosystems and public officials, a truly audacious plan that will have lasting environmental and economic benefits for the region, began to take shape.

   Map of Artificial Reef Project reef sites in Collier CountyThe Artificial Reef Project is truly grand in scope: 18,000 tons of inorganic material (clean concrete – mostly recycled from construction projects around town; and “reef modules,” specifically designed to recruit certain fish species) will be placed in the Gulf, creating six individual artificial reef sites 40-acres in range that will be further broken in six dynamic portions, each 500 tons in mass, all resting between 12 to 30 miles offshore of Marco Island, Naples and Collier County. Spearheaded by Flood, and bolstered by a $1.315 million grant from BP’s Gulf Tourism and Seafood Promotional Fund – the largest grant for a single project from BP – the projected budget of the project is $3.7 million. And though pricey, this project is funded entirely by private dollars—no taxpayer money involved—through grants and fundraising efforts by ERTF, and the Artificial Reef Program Fund setup by the Community Foundation of Collier County, a 501(c)3, meaning all donations are tax deductible.

   The return on this investment: an artificial reef chain with more than 800 years of lasting impact; recruitment of fish and marine life within 2 hours, which will grow exponentially from there; and an estimated $30 million annual revenue boon to the local economy through eco-tourism (diving and fishing), which matriculates into hotel stays, dining, charters, and more, as per the metrics from the University of Florida’s 2011 Florida Sea Grant report.

   The goal of the project is to help restore the local marine ecosystem by giving the ailing Gulf of Mexico a new, diverse habitat, thus recruiting a new fishery in the area. The economic impact of the Artificial Reef Project, the largest such project in the western hemisphere, has the potential to reach millions. When looking at similar projects on the east coast of Florida, which, albeit are much larger in range, though not in terms of one single project, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection claims in 2001, “the artificial and natural reef systems of Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties contributed $3.8 billion in sales to the local economy, as well as almost 60,000 jobs.” Now, Southwest Florida is getting in on the action.

Artificial Reef Project - Collier COunty - New Dive locations in the Gulf of Mexico

   Though the Paradise Coast is not known for its diving, Collier County is involved in a rather active artificial reef program. The program, which is overseen by the county’s Coastal Zone Management Department and coordinated with the Collier County Sea Grant Extension Agency, maintains and monitors more than 50 artificial reef sites created by the department. This includes marking new locations for reefs, navigating the tricky permit process for artificial reefs, applying for grants, organizing reef cleanups and creating the reefs. The Artificial Reef Project will add to that number, but in deeper water: the six new reef sites will sit between 50 and 70 feet underwater – the perfect depth for easy SCUBA dives.

   Now that the City of Marco Island, the City of Naples and Collier County received their final permits from the United States Army Core of Engineers, the reef construction can commence, with the first barge of construction material making its way to the site, 10 nautical miles from Gordon Pass, on Friday, January 9. The projected timeline for the completion of the Artificial Reef Project is the summer of 2015, so right around six months, “but this is all based on weather,” said Diane Flagg, ERTF co-chair. Once the reef sites are complete, it will take an additional two years to become viably mature, creating much-needed habitat for local fish species—in the Gulf, most of the seafloor is sand, which offers little habitat and food for most fish.

Loggerhead Sea turtle - Artificial Reef Project - SCUBA Diving in Naples

   Few projects of this size and scope have ever been undertaken nationally, let alone internationally, which will prove to be a vital resource, not just for the environmental and economic impact it will bring locally, but as an example set for future projects the world over. There is a tenuous balance in world’s oceans and seas, where a delicate food web that relies on all of the ocean’s various habitats—reefs, estuaries, seagrass beads, continental shelf, deep sea, etc.—can be affected by influences seemingly a world away. This balance sits at a precarious place in geologic time—a combination of negatively synergistic impacts like invasive species, rising sea temperatures, increased acidification of the ocean’s water, overfishing, pollution, habitat loss, among many others, are leading to faster ecosystem collapse, which can have devastating consequences, not just for marine ecosystems, but land dwellers throughout the world. The Paradise Coast is stepping into the fight with the Artificial Reef Project, helping tip the scales in this incredibly interconnected and dynamic underwater world.

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