New Artificial Reefs Coming to the Florida Panhandle
The benefits of artificial reefs to marine life biodiversity are well-known. Up to $15 million in funding will go toward beefing up the Destin-Fort Walton Beach area over the next five years.
Just an hour east of Pensacola, Florida, lies Destin-Fort Walton Beach, a small coastal community on the Florida Panhandle that’s trying to make a name for itself in the diving world by creating artificial reefs. Since the 1970s, Okaloosa County has installed thousands of structures to form over 400 artificial reefs off the coast here to bolster marine life. Now, the county has released a bold plan to apply $4 million in funding both to enhance existing reefs and construct a variety of new artificial reefs to attract marine life and tourists alike.
The seafloor off the Destin-Fort Walton coast consists mostly of sand and seashells. Few natural rock outcrops break up the flat underwater expanse, leaving corals without suitable places to grow. Without a secure place to anchor, corals are unable to form reefs and foster the underwater ecosystems scuba divers adore. By sinking various materials, like concrete structures and retired ships, the county can create the home base corals need to thrive.
However, for an artificial reef to be successful, it must be made of materials that promote the proliferation of marine life. Most concrete, for example, has chemical properties that make it inhospitable for a diversity of marine life. Instead, standard concrete tends to promote the growth of fewer, more tolerant species. Paints and leftover fuels left on retired ships can also prove fatal to marine life.
To promote species diversity, the county is careful to thoroughly clean all materials before each deployment. As part of its new five-year artificial reef development plan, which was approved unanimously at a recent Tourist Development Council meeting, the county will use modular structures made out of a special type of marine-safe concrete to enhance some of the aging artificial reef structures already in existence.
Concrete artificial reef.
It will also use a combination of these special concrete structures and donated, retired ships to create new reefs in both Choctawhatchee Bay and right off Destin-Fort Walton Beach.
Choctawhatchee Bay is naturally protected by Destin-Fort Walton Beach, which will allow the inshore reef to serve as an eco-tourism destination even when conditions on the ocean side are too rough for people to enjoy the coast’s offerings. The placement of artificial reefs in the protected bay may also promote the growth of oysters, whose natural water-filtering capabilities would help keep the bay’s water clean.
U.S. military vessel, sunken as an artificial reef.
As part of the five-year plan, the county will also install eight beachside “snorkel reefs” that are accessible directly from Destin-Fort Walton Beach, adding options for those who are not yet divers to explore the region’s waters.
As part of the plan to create larger offshore reefs, the U.S. military will supply large vessels used for training exercises to be turned into artificial reefs. Eventually, the county hopes to create a reef from one of the military’s extra-large 500-plus-foot ships to solidify the area as a unique diving destination.