Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Our Natural and Artificial Reefs

Stepping Stones

Environmental scientist, Katie Laakkonen.

Do you like to snorkel? How about scuba diving? How about fishing in a location where you know you’ll catch something? If so, you are more than likely to visit a reef system, be it natural or artificial. There are several options throughout the state and even more in the past few years with the development of artificial structures in Collier County.

If you live in South Florida your first choice might be the Florida Keys. In this area you will find the Great Florida Reef, the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States and the third largest system of its type in the world. The Florida Reef consists of two ridges and is home to nearly 1,400 species of marine plants and animals including more than 500 species of fish. Stretching more than 170 miles in length there are 6,000 individual reef systems in this tract and it is has been around for more than 5,000 years.

Nearly 25% of all ocean life thrives on coral reefs. Animals known as polyps create the fundamental structure of a reef and they are dying by ingesting bits of trash called “microplastics.” There is a delicate balance here and if the basics are not flourishing then the remainder of the plant and animal chain will suffer as well. Fish feed on the algae along the reefs and if overfishing occurs that algae is not consumed and can smother the corals. This fragile reef system and others need careful monitoring if they are to survive.

Because a reef is found in shallow water, it was only a matter of time before ships would inadvertently find them, causing shipwrecks which formed many artificial reefs. How many sunken ships are out there? Just a brief look at history tells us that in the Florida Keys between 1848 and 1859 at least 618 ships were wrecked along the Florida Reef. One of the main motivations for the Florida railroad was to allow the transport of goods between ships in the Atlantic and the Gulf Coast, thus avoiding the dangerous reefs.

But there are many, many wrecks in the coastal waters. Closer to home, ask any good fisherman where his/her favorite spots are, and they will more than likely take you to a wreck site. These spoils quickly develop a variety of plant life that will eventually attract fish and, just like a natural reef, a new living quarters is born for a variety of species to call home.

In addition to the above, artificial reefs have been created throughout the state. The process to create one of these is quite elaborate and time consuming, considering the survey of an entire area, testing of substrate to qualify a location and permitting. Of Florida’s 35 coastal counties, 34 are involved in some type of artificial reef development.

As well as increasing a habitat for fish, these structures provide recreational opportunities for Florida residents and visitors. Charter fishing, scuba diving and explorative adventures are more available in Collier County.

Thirty-six structures were built and placed in county waters in 2015 and they will be around for a long, long time. In earlier years boats were sunk, tires deployed and pipes disposed to create an artificial playground for plants, corals and fish.

Wood and metal will break down quickly but the new modules are made of concrete and limestone and have an expected lifespan of several centuries.

You can learn more about the Collier County Reef Program and meet environmental scientist Katie Laakkonen who dove nearly 100 potential sites to help her team decide on the final 36 spots. Katie will be at the Marco Island Historical Society’s Rose Auditorium on Monday, October 15 at 7 PM with an intriguing presentation and she will answer questions concerning the recent effects of red tide at those locations. A certified diver, Katie helped to expedite and determine the locations of the artificial reefs built in the Collier County waters a few years ago. Her presentation will include the reef construction as well as an update on fish and plant life populations and the effects of the recent red tide at the reef sites.

Bob is a Naturalist on board the dolphin study boat, Dolphin Explorer. He is also the author of two books and is a member of the Florida Society for Ethical Ecotourism. Bob loves his wife very much!

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