Largest artificial reef in hemisphere set to deploy off Marco Island

Posted at 2:16 PM, Dec 15, 2014
and last updated 2014-12-16 09:48:24-05

Pipes and other suitable concrete sit ready for a trip to the Gulf of Mexico to build the largest artificial reef in the Western Hemisphere.

The rubble, about 600 to 800 tons, has been collected on the north side of the S.S. Judge Jolly Bridge and will be loaded onto a barge. Then, it will be transported offshore and dropped, the first delivery for the reef project.

A deployment ceremony is scheduled for 10 a.m., Thursday, Jan. 8, near the Jolly Bridge staging area. The program will include an address by Collier County Commissioner Donna Fiala and a ribbon cutting in front of the fully loaded barge.

On Jan. 9, a flotilla and barge will converge on the first of six reef sites and drop the materials 10 nautical miles from Gordon Pass. At 10 a.m., a local minister will perform the “blessing of the reefs” from the flotilla.

When completed the artificial reef will measure one-quarter mile by one-quarter mile. Off Marco Island, one drop area is in 36 feet of water and a second in 74 feet. The reef is meant to generate millions in tourism dollars for Collier County.

“A 2011 Sea Grant study of six coastal counties in Florida, found that the users of artificial reefs created 2,600 jobs that generated $253 million annually for those counties,” said Nancy Richie, Marco Island’s environmental specialist.

The project is funded by a $1.3 million grant settlement from BP PLC. BP was required to fund projects that promote tourism and the seafood industry in Gulf waters after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

The city of Marco Island applied for and received $500,000 for the project. The city of Naples received $314,000, and Collier County received $500,000. The money will completely cover the deployment and construction of six reef sites that make up the total reef area.

Marco Island obtained all required permits this month from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for their portion of the project. The three government entities worked with Dianna Flagg of Collier County’s Economic Recovery Task Force and the county’s Reef Project team.

They partnered with Waste Management at the Collier County Landfill to store at no cost donated concrete and limestone materials for the reefs. More than 18,000 tons have been accumulated and stored thus far.

McCulley Marine Services was contracted to deploy the materials. Weather permitting, up to three barges of materials per week will be sent out until 34 trips complete all six reef sites.

One industry that will see a boon from artificial reefs is scuba diving. Jeff Dawson of Scuba Marco said diving is already good off Marco’s shore because there have been a dozen sites developed over the past 40 years, but more is better.

“The more structure, the more reef activity, the more dive spots,” he said.

It only will take a few months after the reefs are placed before they are dive ready.

“This colonize very quickly out here,” Dawson said.

The coral he sees off-island grows primarily 6 to 8 inches off the sea floor and is called patch or limestone coral.

“We don’t see the same coral as the (Florida) Keys.”

Sports fishing also will benefit. Florida is the only state in the U.S. where coral grows close to the coast. Much of the area’s sports fish spend part of their young life in the coral reef system where they grow to legal size. Turtles and crustaceans use reefs as an important food source.

“We have world-class beaches on Marco Island,” said Fiala, “Why not world-class artificial reefs? I think the positive impact on our businesses will be the best outcome for all.”