State debates tighter regulations for creating artifical reefs

Since the 1920s, Floridians have thrown wrecked boats, old washing machines, concrete rubble and other junk into the ocean to create fishing reefs. Now the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is drawing up a plan to regulate the construction of artificial reefs, and fishermen and environmentalists are arguing over whether these structures are good for the environment or only good for people who fish. Like natural coral reefs, artificial reefs attract fish by providing hiding places, offering surfaces for algae and other food and generating currents that draw in plankton. Florida has more than 2,000 artificial reefs, and charter boat operators say they've become essential to the state's sport-fishing business. Reached by cell phone on his boat Bouncer's Dusky 33, about two miles off Hallandale Beach, Capt. Bouncer Smith said, "I have three men on the boat now from Hong Kong who are only there to fish on artificial reefs. Everything we catch comes off artificial reefs -- wahoo, kingfish, snapper, grouper, cobia, permits, African pompano. Our natural reef habitat has been buried in sediment from beach renourishment or sewer outfall, so nothing can grow on them. Artificial reefs create clean structure so coral can grow." But environmentalists say artificial reefs may be harming dwindling populations of snapper, grouper and other fish. Rather than helping fish stocks recover by creating more habitat, they simply draw the remaining fish toward waiting hooks. "Do they only attract fish so that fishermen can take more fish?" asked David White, southeast regional director of the Ocean Conservancy. "If they're just giant fish attractors, they're just leading to greater depletion of fish." The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission plans to vote next month on an artificial reef strategic plan intended to find ways to build more reefs, conduct research on their impact and do a better job of regulating their construction. A 15-member advisory board of county artificial reef officials, charter captains, environmentalists and divers drafted the initial plan. The Ocean Conservancy, which had a representative on the advisory board, has now denounced the plan. The conservancy is upset that the fish and wildlife commission, a seven-member board appointed by the governor, removed various conservation measures. For example, the commission took out a section that recommended some artificial reefs be designated no-fishing zones, allowing depleted species to be protected and the environmental impact of reefs to be studied. "These environmental components have been withdrawn, and they've changed to focus on economics instead of conservation," said Marianne Cufone, regional conservation program manager for the Ocean Conservancy. "The artificial reefs are now mainly to focus on creating fishing spots and creating tourist spots for people to fish on and dive on." Commission Chairman Edwin Roberts, an avid fisherman from Pensacola, said he took out the no-fishing zone provision because he opposes the use of such a drastic management measure."We do a real good job managing our fisheries in Florida," he said. "No-fishing zones don't have a place in the way we manage our fisheries. I think it's an extremist thing to have to do. And we're not there yet." Roberts said he wants to see more artificial reefs constructed, particularly in the sandy and muddy bottoms off the Panhandle, which lacks the natural reefs found in South Florida. He hopes this reef plan leads charter captains and local officials to seek out grants and find ways to build more reefs. The construction of artificial reefs has progressed since the days when practically anything went over the side. No longer does anyone dump old refrigerators or washing machines or tires into the ocean, at least not legally. These practices left boondoggles such as the 2 million tires scattered between the coral reefs off Fort Lauderdale, which environmental officials estimate could cost more than $40 million to clean up. Today, artificial reefs tend to be made from heavy steel, concrete or old ships sanitized of harmful chemicals. But they still alter ocean habitats, particularly in northern Florida, which lacks the reef communities of South Florida. An artificial reef transforms a sandy or muddy bottom habitat, which supports worms, mollusks and other marine life, into a reef ecosystem. Environmentalists say Florida and other states have plunged into the business of constructing artificial reefs without considering the consequences of changing ocean ecosystems. "They can be dangerous," said Cufone, of the Ocean Conservancy. "We're not certain of the impacts." John McManus, director of the National Center for Caribbean Coral Reef Research at the University of Miami, said artificial reefs threaten depleted fish populations. Attracting fish from coral outcroppings that fishermen may not know about, these reefs create a concentrated population of fish exactly where the hooks will be, he said. But Bob Shipp, chairman of the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama, said artificial reefs can generate more fish. Fish begin life as larvae in the plankton that drifts in ocean currents. Most die without settling on habitat they can live in. So rather than drawing just existing fish, he said artificial reefs create more opportunities for larval fish to grow to adulthood. "The purists would say we're messing with nature, but we've been doing that on terrestrial habitat for 15,000 years," said Shipp, a fishing writer who has judged many fishing tournaments. "In general, I think people are realizing that, if properly placed and with the proper management, artificial reefs can be a benefit to fisheries and the environment."