by Keith Kolasa
Florida’s Adventure Coast has had a long history of artificial reef construction thanks to the support of its residents, fishing clubs, dive shops, members of the Hernando County Port Authority and the Board of County Commissioners.
Through continued community support there has been a concerted effort to create viable and diverse marine habitats while also creating interesting underwater destinationsfor scuba divers and free-divers. Today there are a total of four artificial reefs that range from 15 nautical miles (nm) to 20 nm offshore in water depths ranging from 18 to 25 feet depth. Although they can be snorkeled during April, May, and June when the water is typically the clearest, the best way to explore the reefs and to view their diverse and rich marine life is with scuba gear.
The Hernando County reef projects actually started in the late 1970’s with the deployment of Richardson reef, followed by its expansion in 1987, and the creation of the Jim Champion Reef in 1991. These reefs were constructed of concrete culverts and various types of concrete rubble and even a sunken barge. In 1994 and 1995 two different types of reefs were deployed with one reef constructed of 180 reef ball modules (1994), and was simply named the Reef Ball reef. In 1995 Florida’s Adventure Coast was fortunate to be part of a multi-county cooperative project with the US Army, named Operation REEFX. The purpose of operation REEFX was to deploy surplus US Army Sherman M-60 tanks to create unique fishing reefs that not only serve as tributes or memorials to our veterans but also create exciting dive sites. The tanks provide both high relief structure and deep cover habitat for desirable fish including gag and red grouper, mangrove and gray snapper, Spanish mackerel and also pelagic species including amberjack, cobia, and kingfish.
The army tank reef on Florida’s Adventure Coast known as “Bendickson” reef was named after a long term member of the Port Authority similar to both Richardson reef and Jim Champion reef. Additional deployments of material adding to these reefs have taken place over time, the most recent deployment taking place in 1997. It’s important to note that the earlier reef projects were made possible through grants obtained from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and more recently from grants obtained from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Thanks to the efforts of County staff and funding provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, expansion of the Bendickson reef is scheduled later this year with 600 tons of a variety of concrete structures available for deployment. The material will be deployed on sand bottom areas near the army tanks to create additional structure for both fishing and diving. The County has also recently received permits for the County’s first shallow water reefs that will be deployed within close proximity to shore at locations 6 to 7 miles west of Hernando Beach. These reefs are anticipated to provide almost immediate recreational benefits since they will be accessible to residents and families owning smaller vessels, and will be easily viewable by snorkelers. This project, which will provide greater accessibility of artificial reefs to residents, was a grass-roots based project developed through discussions at the Hernando Port Authority with significant citizen input. The artificial reefs will also create an avenue to promote visitation from tourists that want to explore the County’s nearshore marine waters and view a variety of marine life that are expected to inhabit the reef modules.
Keith Kolasa recently joined Hernando County as the Aquatics Services Manager overseeing construction of artificial reefs, lake management projects, development of a marine enhancement plan, and general maintenance of the County’s waterways and its offshore and inshore navigation aids markers. Keith is a biologist with 26 years of experience in freshwater and marine resource management, including experience in water quality monitoring, water quality enhancement and lake restoration, natural system restoration, GIS mapping, and establishment of Minimum Flows and Levels. As a native to Hernando County and having managed the seagrass mapping project of Florida’s Adventure Coast and surrounding counties, he is knowledgeable of the marine systems of this region. Keith has served as a volunteer scientist for Scubanauts International since 2009, and currently serves as the Science Education Outreach Coordinator, is a licensed 50 ton boat captain, and a scientific diver.