Artificial reefs have become a significant part of Florida’s marine environment, providing habitat for sea life and diving and fishing opportunities for millions of state residents and visitors.
By law, coordinates for more than 2,700 artificial reefs off 34 counties are available to the public, but a pair of bills in the Legislature that begins March 3 would exempt individuals who finance artificial reefs from publishing the reefs’ locations.
“This wouldn’t prevent you from fishing those reefs if you find them — the waters are open to the public,” said Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, sponsor of Senate Bill 846. “The only thing you can’t do is go to the county and pull the coordinates.
“The individual would get his permits, set the reef and give the coordinates to the authorities, but the location would not be part of the public record.”
Studies show that Florida’s artificial reefs have an annual economic impact of billions of dollars; according to a 2011 University of Florida study, more than 2 million people use artificial reefs and spend $253 million on reef-related activities every year in Southwest Florida (Lee, Charlotte, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties).
Lee County has 20 permitted reef sites and more than 160 individual deposits.
Behind SB 846 and House Bill 559, sponsored by Rep. Brad Drake, R-Marianna, is the fact that private citizens who finance legally permitted artificial reefs to be placed on permitted sites sometimes give inaccurate information about a reef’s location.
If officials don’t know where reefs are, they can’t monitor fish populations, remove debris and make sure the structures are functioning properly.
“This is a Panhandle issue,” said Jon Dodrill, head of Florida’s Artificial Reef Program. “In Escambia, Bay and Okaloosa counties, individuals have historically gone out and independently deployed material they’ve scrounged or purchased. We require coordinates for these reefs, but traditionally, they haven’t given the proper coordinates. We’ve gone out with side-scan sonar and found them as much as five miles from where they were supposed to be.”
Hiding a reef on one of Lee County’s reef sites would be difficult, said Mike Campbell, head of the county’s reef program.
“In the Panhandle, they have huge, huge reef sites,” he said. “Ours are a quarter mile by a quarter mile, so we’d know that a reef was there.”
Statewide, 448 permitted artificial reef sites average 1.48 square nautical miles in size; reef sites off the Panhandle average 60.87 square nautical miles.
If passed, SB 846 and HB 559 would encourage people who finance private reefs to give authorities accurate coordinates, Evers said.
Dodrill is not so sure.
“I don’t think it will resolve the issue,” he said. “We try to rein in these operations by having reef material inspected to conform to county-held permits, but once it leaves the dock, there’s no telling where that stuff goes.”
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