Imagine building a home and just two hours later having it be full of life. That’s what happens when an artificial reef is sunk off the Gulf Coast.
Collier County’s new artificial reef project is joining local municipalities, scientists, the Corps of Engineers, the Community Foundation of Collier County and private citizens to beef up the amount of sea life in local waters. The Economic Recovery Task Force of Collier County and its Artificial Reef project team are spearheading the project, but a wide cross-section of agencies and individuals are supporting the initiative too.
At press time, all 36 concrete artificial reefs were expected to be in place. Since placement of the first reef in January, div- ers and boat captains have reported not only more marine life but also different species, says Diane Flagg of the Economic Recovery Task Force.
One unique thing spotted on the new reefs is a whale shark. “In talking to a boat captain who’s been on the water for 30 years, he said he’s never seen one,” said Flagg, who helms the ERTF with co-chair Jeff Ahren. “And nobody we’ve ever talk- ed to has seen a whale shark off the coast of Naples.”
And the more sea life, the more vital the economy. According to the task force’s business plan, within two years the reefs could bring in $30 million annually through boating, diving, hotel accom- modations and even fishing tournaments.
This dollar figure is based on a formula from the University of Florida’s 2011 Sea Grant Study.
Local lawyer Peter Flood first raised the idea for a reef. Flood approached Flagg just as she was about to retire as director of code enforcement for Collier County. His timing was good: Flagg would be able to devote the hours needed to help get the project going.
Buy-in came from everywhere, as Flagg tells it. All three local municipalities – the cities of Naples and Marco Island plus Collier County approved the project and applied for and received settlement money from BP as reparations for the 2010 Deep- water Horizon Oil Spill.
The reefs have been placed in locations 12-30 miles offshore. Each spot was formerly described as a “desert.” This was a require- ment, said Flagg. The Army Corps of Engineers would only approve permits for places where no marine life already congregated.
A documentary in progress titled “Paradise Reef: The World is Watching,” will hopefully sell the project to citizens. Filmmaker John Scoular, who has been on board since the beginning, has a letter of intent from PBS to distribute the film. Scoular has been filming interviews and footage on location as the reefs have been deployed.
Longtime cameraman Scoular along with his wife, producer Madeline Scoular, joined Lance and Harry Julian of Naples in Pure Image Productions for the project. Through their company Marine Team International, the Julians have acted as consultants on water-related films included “Waterworld,” “Titanic,” “Fool’s Gold” and other projects.
With “Paradise Reef,” Scoular admits they rather “put the cart before the horse” and started filming with their own money so as not to miss any part of the process. Scoular need about $527,000), viewers will see the reefs being constructed and placed from start to finish. Each reef is eight feet tall and has a sturdy base, which enables it to withstand the Gulf ’s current. Some have concrete benches that were lowered with airbags and placed on the sea floor. Divers can sit on these benches and watch the local sea life playing in their new home. The benches were donated by the city of Naples, Flagg said. “They were going to break them up and send them to the landfill. The beauty of this project is ultimate recycling. [Before this], they were going to go to the landfill.”
Over the years, other artificial reefs, many made of old ships, have been lowered into the Gulf. The World War II ship USS Mohawk was given a new home on the Gulf bottom 28 miles off the Sanibel coast in July 2012. Although artificial reef building is not a new phenomenon, organizers of the Collier County project claim it’s one of the largest projects in the area to-date.
Among the Paradise Reef installations, three so far are named for benefactors – the Wasmer family, Harold Foote, and former U.S. Ambassador Francis Rooney and Kathleen Rooney. Each family has donated $100,000 for a “legacy reef.” Forever appearing on marine charts will be the Wasmer Reef, the Foote Family Reef and the Rooney Reef.
Three more legacy reefs may be sponsored at $100,000 each. Donations from $25 to $500,000 can be made to support the project as well. For the latter sum, the documentary film will be dedicated to the donor.