If You Sink It, They Will Come

Creating an artificial reef is no longer a slam-dunk affair, despite an abundance of missile sites, water towers, and wanna-be philanthropists

Fishing-boat operators and fishing clubs love artificial reefs because they attract bait fish and larger food fish such as grouper and snapper, as well as sport species like sailfish. Anyone with a hundred-dollar sonar or the proper latitude and longitude coordinates gains instant access to a pelagic Publix, if not a guaranteed platter of dauphin a la meuniäre.

Divers love manmade reefs for the sea life they attract, but also for their inherent drama. Like the promoters who bought and reconstructed London Bridge in the Arizona desert, reef builders know the visceral fascination attendant on large terrestrial objects that appear where they aren't supposed to be.

Moneyed America, from big corporations to private philanthropists, loves artificial reefs because they represent a politically correct project with zero apparent downside and oodles of good publicity. Besides affording an alternative disposal method for bulky industrial artifacts, there's usually an accompanying tax write-off.

Even the Pentagon loves artificial reefs. In 1993 a low-ranking army reservist solved the problem of what to do with 5000 obsolete tanks. Instead of expensively reducing them to scrap, the military, as per the reservist's scheme, began selling them to coastal states. The sale continues, and Dade County plans to add eight more of the 45-ton war machines to the two already resting off 40th Street on Miami Beach.

The growth of artificial reefs has been phenomenal. In 1960 there were only four sanctioned artificial reef sites in the Sunshine State. By 1991 there were 329. Don Pybas, a University of Florida marine extension agent who has catalogued artificial reefs for eighteen years, guesses that since the early Nineties about 30 more reefs have been added to Florida's Gulf and Atlantic waters. In the four years alone leading up to 1991, a whopping 119 sites were added, half of those in '87, the peak year. A full 31 percent of Florida's artificial reefs are made of ships, often renamed to honor people who have died under horrible circumstances: firemen who have died in the line of duty, drowned divers, a beloved veterinarian murdered outside his office by a schizophrenic drifter.

Fewer new sites have been established during the past five years. This fact might suggest the artificial reef craze is waning, but that's not the case. New material, bigger and more peculiar all the time, is being placed on existing sites. In Monroe County, after a decade-long hiatus, planners are preparing to blow up and sink their second-largest ship ever A the 510-foot Spiegel Grove, a retired U.S. Navy transport vessel. Deployment has been delayed by the discovery of cancer-causing chemicals known as PCBs onboard the ship, but plans call for the sinking to proceed toward the end of the summer. The rage for more artificial reefs is alive, especially in Dade County waters, which have been transformed in the past fifteen years from boring havens of moribund natural coral to a lucrative undersea Disney World of engineered spectacles that draw thousands of scuba divers from around the world, often luring them away from the Florida Keys.

At street level the idea of artificial reefs as a magical way to turn junk into beneficence has utterly captured the minds of some Miamians. "I have the cockpit from a Boeing 727 and a six-foot iron safe in the yard of my plumbing business," one reader recently wrote to the Miami Herald's Action Line. "I don't know the combination of the safe and I can't think of any good use for the cockpit. I would like to get rid of both, though, and someone suggested they might be used in an artificial reef. How can I find out?"

Without getting too specific, Ben Mostkoff, coordinator of DERM's fifteen-year-old artificial reef program, admits things may have gotten a bit out of hand at times. "There's a fine line between operating a landfill and managing a viable marine habitat," he declares.

While interest in manmade reefs continues to grow among recreational users, cracks in the happy orthodoxy surrounding artificial reef creation have developed between local governments, fishermen, and divers on the one hand and scientists and academics on the other. Some expert observers suggest that artificial reefs --t least as they've been conceptualized and constructed in the past --mount to an idea whose time has gone.

"I call it eco-pornography," snorts Jim Bohnsack, a research biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Miami, referring to the worst excesses of the past two decades. "My favorite example is a magazine ad I saw a few years back. A guy was saying, 'Send us your worn-out computer hard drives, we'll make an artificial reef out of 'em.'"

Don Pybas has an even better example: "One permit that was pulled, the guy was basically going to cremate people, seal the ashes in concrete cubes, and sink 'em. This was in Sarasota or Manatee County. I don't think it ever worked out."

Artificial reefs are nothing new. Documents dating from the late Eighteenth Century show that Japanese fishermen were already building them, having learned to capitalize on an important observation A that fish and other marine organisms are strongly attracted to alien objects. The first intentional manmade reefs in the United States were established along the South Carolina coast before the Civil War. By the turn of the Twentieth Century, charter fishing parties from New York City could visit an extensive network of artificial reefs off Long Island. Whether there was controversy attached to any of this early artificial reef creation is unknown, at least according to reef historian Bill Seaman, a University of Florida professor and author of Artificial Habitats for Marine and Freshwater Fisheries. Clearly though, Florida was a latecomer to the concept. It was only after World War II, when the state's population ballooned and people found themselves with more leisure time and money, that Floridians began to erect the things.

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