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

"The towers were kind of like an eyesore," Kennedy says. "I was getting flack from the neighbors because they looked like guard towers."

Months passed. Nothing happened. To jump-start the project, Kennedy recruited Homestead dentist Sam Porco, president of a South Dade sporting club called Fish and Game Unlimited and the man who had helped sink several reefs in the past. In early April, Mostkoff inspected the five missile towers. They had already been approved by his agency for placement on the Pflueger Reef site, but Mostkoff was waiting to get state grant money to pay for the expense of transporting and sinking them. He was also anticipating the donation of some barges and temporary storage space from a private firm on the Miami River. Mostkoff wanted a mechanical engineer to look at the towers and decide the best way to dismantle, clean, and anchor them.

"At the beginning of the project, I had asked for as much information as possible," Mostkoff notes, although he doesn't recall receiving much in the way of documentation. What Kennedy and Porco remember is government foot dragging. "The whole thing took way too long," Kennedy huffs. "Ben didn't return my phone calls. He had about as much enthusiasm as a dead frog."

Mostkoff wasn't returning Kennedy's phone calls because he was working through Porco, the designated point man. But Porco also became frustrated with the complexity of the project, and that frustration may have had a lot to do with the peculiar history and culture of artificial reef construction in South Dade. During the Eighties it became popular for private individuals and clubs to stage dramatic ship sinkings A sometimes blasting the ships with bombers borrowed from Homestead Air Force Base A and then name them after local luminaries. For example, the 287-foot freighter Doc DeMilly went down in March 1988, honoring a murdered veterinarian, the father of Homestead mayor Tad DeMilly. Seven months later two more steel-hulled cargo vessels were dumped: The 115-foot Hugo's April Fool celebrified South Dade billboard owner and sailing adventurer Hugo Vihlen, while the Berry Patch was dedicated to Roger Berry, a Homestead paint-and-carpet merchant whose only apparent claim to fame is the fact that he's a nice guy and a long-standing member of the Rotary Club. It was through these activities that Porco gained a reputation as a rainmaker, a hard-charging ocean enthusiast with the chutzpah and connections to turn reef dreams into reality.

But in 1990, partly in response to a tire-dumping incident off Panama City on the Gulf Coast, the federal government abruptly put the brakes on further reef construction by private interests. By instituting much stricter liability and management standards, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers imposed a de facto moratorium that blocked individuals from creating such reefs. Since then only local and state governments have been granted permits to build new reefs or to add to old ones. Well-meaning outdoorsmen such as Porco found themselves stripped of a certain prestige and power. And old habits die hard.

Mostkoff sighs. "This is a very emotional subject for a lot of people," he explains. "These particular reef sites were constructed by mostly private individuals, with a lot of toil. Sam [Porco] operates under this methodology where he wants to expedite whatever project he's working on."

A basic problem with Kennedy and Porco's scheme developed suddenly and unexpectedly. Last October, the same month Kennedy got the idea to turn the missile towers into a reef, Dade County filed a routine request to renew federal permits for five existing artificial reef sites in South Dade near Biscayne National Park, the location that Porco had been eyeing. Much to the surprise of local government and fishing and diving interests, the park announced it intended to oppose the request. So did the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, in whose waters the reefs sit.

Not having a permit means Dade County can't add any material to the five reef sites, which range from Fowey Light south of Key Biscayne to the mouth of Caesar's Creek off Elliott Key. A compromise between the county, the park, and the sanctuary limiting the types and amount of material eligible for placement on the reefs is now being hammered out, and the Army Corps of Engineers in Jacksonville is expected to rule on the rewritten permit application later this summer.

Dick Frost, superintendent of Biscayne National Park, says his opposition is twofold. The artificial reefs, some pre-dating the creation of the park in 1980, squat near park boundaries next to natural reefs. Hurricane Andrew and Tropical Storm Gordon demonstrated that pieces of artificial reefs can break off in rough weather and wind up in unpredictable places -- sometimes pummeling natural reefs. An entire ship, the Tarpoon, rolled across the ocean floor during Andrew and came to rest inside park waters. Farther north a barge off Key Biscayne was dragged 400 yards across sandy bottom, ascending from 68 to 38 feet underwater. Meanwhile The Spirit of Miami, the watery Boeing jet, broke into several pieces.

Frost's other point of opposition is more complex. Turn on your porch light at night and insects show up, drawn to the luminosity. Then come the lizards, hunting the bugs. Next the neighborhood cats arrive, angling for lizard sashimi. Instant food chain. Similarly, when a manmade reef is sunk, its shadows and crevices and current-altering bulk draw speedos and pilchards and other small fry. Then the food fish show up, grouper and snapper, mackerel and dolphin, wahoo and tuna. Then larger predators such as barracuda and sailfish. Eventually the reef takes on coral accretions and colonies of microorganisms that enhance the habitat.

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