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Repurposing and Recycling for Artificial Reefs

Pensacola is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the country, attracting tourists, avid anglers and snorkeling/scuba enthusiasts alike. What the average beach goer may not know is what Pensacola is known for below the crystal-clear saltwater— a bolstering system of artificial reefs.

Pensacola is a hotspot for artificial reefs, housing more than 500 public, man-made reef systems, including the largest artificial reef in the world, the U.S.S. Oriskany. Constructed between 1946 and 1950, the U.S.S. Oriskany is a 911-foot- long aircraft carrier that primarily operated in the Pacific in the 1970s. The ship earned two battle stars for service in the Korean War and five for service in the Vietnam War. After being decommissioned in 1976, sold for scrap in 1995 and repossessed in 1997, the 44,000- ton aircraft carrier was thoroughly cleansed of toxic substances and sunk off the coast of Pensacola in 2006.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation (FWC) selected Escambia County as Florida’s best candidate for reefing the Oriskany because Pensacola was a leading location for artificial reefs. Escambia County was not only one of the first counties designing, permitting and deploying artificial reefs, but it also continues, to this day, to lead the state in the sheer number of reef systems. The Oriskany is just one of twelve sunken carriers along the Florida Panhandle’s “Shipwreck Trail.” Five of the twelve sites are located in Pensacola and house thriving marine ecosystems and dive sites with varying depths and complexities.

Artificial reefs are beneficial to both aquatic life and human life. Using decommissioned ships, vehicles, planes and construction rubble, man-made reefs provide hard surfaces where algae and invertebrates such as barnacles, corals and oysters can attach, which in turn boosts the ecosystem of fish and marine animals. Reefs are built for a wide variety of reasons including promoting marine life in areas with featureless ocean floors, controlling erosion, blocking ship passages, blocking the use of trawling nets and even improving surfing. Over the years, the public popularity of reefs in Pensacola has continued to flourish as a byproduct of the increase in marine life and boosting the fishing and tourist economies.

The Escambia County Marine Resources Manager Robert Turpin explained just how beneficial the reef programs are to our local economies: “In 2015, the FWC funded a study of Florida artificial reefs. The study concluded that fishing and diving on Escambia County's artificial reefs provide for an annual economic impact of $150.8 million and supports more than 2,000 jobs.”

The popularity is not trailing off anytime soon: the artificial reef program overseen by The Escambia County Marine Resources Division has plans to deploy more than 700 additional reefs off the coast of Pensacola. The new reefs are being funded partly by restitution money paid by the oil company BP in the aftermath of the massive 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Another buzzing plan in the works is the decommissioned Pensacola Bay Bridge, known by locals as the “Three-Mile Bridge.”

With construction closing in on the new bridge, sections of the decommissioned bridge are set to be sunk in three locations. Escambia County partnered with the Florida Department of Transportation and other state and federal agencies to obtain the site for the decommissioned bridge, which is now the largest permitted artificial reef site in Florida waters.

“The Escambia Southeast Reef Site encompasses nearly 9 square miles of Gulf of Mexico seafloor, and is located southeast of Pensacola Pass. Water depths in the site range between 80 feet and 100 feet. The large site was needed to deploy the anticipated concrete from the Pensacola Bay Bridge demolition, as well as artificial reefs funded by the oil spill,” said Turpin.

Continuing to construct new artificial reefs is paramount to the success of reef programs. Fish and wildlife respond to newly commissioned reefs almost immediately. The reefs provide shelter, food, and the growth of marine ecosystems. However, while Escambia County uses the most stable and durable reef materials that are available, reefs are prone to natural erosion.

“The physical and chemical forces of the underwater marine environment cause the eventual deterioration and/or subsidence of artificial reefs over decades. The most economically feasible long- term means of maintaining artificial reef habitat is to create new habitat at a greater rate than deterioration or subsidence,” explained Turpin.

Continuing to build more reefs, just like the Marine Resources Division has set in the works with their estimated 700 new reef sites, is the solution to maintaining reef networks and oceanic life. Repurposing and recycling construction debris and military vessels for artificial reefs saves material from ending up in landfills and junkyards, while benefiting aquatic life and local economies.

To learn more about the artificial reefs in our local waters, check out: services/natural-resources- management/marine- resources/artificial-reefs.


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