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

Spieler also challenges the conventional wisdom that South Florida's manmade fish condos take pressure off its struggling natural reefs. "That sounds fine, but as soon as you examine it, it gets tricky," he ventures. Builders and managers of new reefs often claim that the underwater structures divert divers and fishermen from natural reefs. But Spieler points out that the deployment and marketing of artificial reefs may have resulted in a net increase in recreational use of all types of reefs. Many commercial dive boats make two stops during a day trip -- one at an artificial reef and one at a natural site. Overall the pressure on natural reefs may have increased.

According to Spieler, the extent to which manmade reefs are legitimate enhancers of the marine ecosystem is just beginning to be known. "We're hoping to come up with methodologies for artificial reef designs to enhance so-called bottlenecks in fisheries production," he explains. "Maybe, in a particular species, there are insufficient larval fish hatching in plankton, or insufficient spots for them to settle. Or maybe deep-water habitat is limited. We need to know a lot more about the life histories of individual species. It might be that we can use inshore modules [small, shallow-water reefs specifically designed for a certain species]. Or increase nursery grounds. Or actually dump larval fish in plankton.

"Artificial reefs are simply tools, like a hammer. You can use a hammer to build a house or smash all your mother's china. At this point we're moving away from exploitation toward management, or at least I hope we are. I think artificial reefs are here to stay. But not in the form we've seen them."

Lindburgh, Bohnsack, Spieler, and other scientists indicate they would like to see new reefs established, but only if they're based on better science. Or, alternatively, they'd be pleased to hear admissions from local governments and resource managers that the artificial reefs being contemplated may have nothing to do with science. They suggest that a new reef probably can't be a fishing hot spot, a diving spectacle, and a scientifically sound marine habitat all at once.

"We need to be honest with ourselves, put the cards on the table and take a hard look at this," Lindburgh says. "An architect and engineer won't go out and construct a building without consulting the owner and user about what it is they want."

"What the heck do they want?" Bohnsack gripes. "It's usually vague. That's fine, but let's be up-front with people. And be creative. They're doing some nice work in Cuba with what they call casitas, little habitats for lobsters. Here they kind of just throw things out and call it a day. We can do better than that."

In early May a fed-up Sam Porco got the go-ahead from Wayne Kennedy, assembled the Bay Point students, and issued them propane torches. The teenagers cut the five missile towers into pieces. Over the course of three days a private contractor hauled the pieces to a scrap yard on the Miami River. Porco says he and Kennedy had concluded that the towers were a safety hazard as well as an eyesore, and decided simply to get rid of them. As the disassembling concluded, Ben Mostkoff called to say he had finally received $45,000 in state grant money, part of it earmarked for the missile platform reef project.

Dan Shepherd, Miami Beach water and sewer superintendent, remembers his birthday eleven years ago not because his wife baked him a cake but because the phone rang and someone was dead. Specifically, an employee of Sunshine Painting, an Orlando firm that had contracted with the city to paint the South Beach water tower, located at the corner of Second Street and Alton Road. The worker, suspended in a bosun's chair inside the tower's bowl, apparently fell to his death after one of the structure's support rods pulled through the inch-thick east wall and released the rope from which he was hanging.

In 1991 the water tower was shut down for good. It was no longer needed because the city had installed a new system of high-pressure, twenty-inch water mains south of Fifth Street. Prior to that the tower had been used to intermittently boost pressure in the Beach's water pipes. Toward the end of its life, the 250,000-gallon tank and its 80-foot pedestal had become a headache for Shepherd. He worried about vandals contaminating the drinking-water supply. He worried about graffitists climbing up and getting injured. He worried about the increasingly expensive upkeep on the Twenties-era albatross A just painting it required 790 pounds of primer, and primer wasn't getting any cheaper. Even now Shepherd worries about the empty, rusting, 70-ton water tower. "If we have a hurricane, it's going to blow over," he predicts.

A solution to Shepherd's concerns has been proffered by the City of Miami Beach, the county, the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, and the Portofino Group, a large private land development company headed by German financier Thomas Kramer: Get rid of the pale pink mini-monument late this summer by adding it to an existing artificial reef.

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