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When bare bottom's a necessity

Treasure Island Charities scours the gulf floor for a barren spot to erect an artificial reef.


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 6, 2000

The depth recorder showed nothing below.

"This looks like the place," Jon Willis said as he studied the machine's screen monitor mounted atop the boat's console. "We don't want anything but sand bottom."

Willis, an avid diver and fisherman, has spent the better part of a decade prowling local waters for patches of hard bottom, ledges and wrecks because he knows that in the ocean desert, even a single piece of concrete block will attract fish.

But on this particular Wednesday, Willis, executive director of Treasure Island Charities, is looking for a site that is barren.

"If you want to build an artificial reef, you can't build on top of existing natural bottom," he explained. "You don't want to damage any existing habitat."

The charity, known primarily for the kingfish tournaments it sponsors, has never built an artificial reef. Last year the Hurricane Pass Anglers Club, another private organization, helped muster support for the new Veterans Reef in north Pinellas County.

Treasure Island Charities plans to use the same consultant, Bruce Hasbrouck of HDR Engineering, to help with its project.

"We always say that a good day of diving for the client is a bad day of diving for us," Hasbrouck said. "The sites we are looking for are bare bottom, no limestone ledges, just sand."

The trick, Hasbrouck said, is to find a suitable spot within a quarter or half-mile of a natural system. "That way it is easy for the existing fish to move back and forth," he said.

Pinellas County, which has one of the top artificial reef programs in the state, has sunk tanks, barges, small ships and a variety of man-made objects.

"We would like to find an old Navy ship, something with some size, and sink it on its side," Willis said. "We want to put it in 100 feet of water so it can serve both the diving and fishing communities."

The artificial reef must have the proper clearance for project to make it through the rigorous federal permitting project.

"So if the ship is in 100 feet of water, it can't have a beam wider than 50 feet," Willis said. "But we don't think we will have a problem getting one. The Navy has plenty of old ships it doesn't know what to do with."

Willis hopes to find a ship similar to the USS Rankin, which was sunk in 1988 about 6 miles southeast of St. Lucie Inlet on Florida's East Coast. The 459-foot amphibious assault ship rests on its side in 120 feet of water. Visitors can reach the Rankin's upper deck in 65 feet of water.

But sinking a wreck is an expensive proposition.

"The ship might not cost anything, but before you can sink it, the hull must be cleaned thoroughly," said Joe Bachelor of the Army Corps of Engineers. "The potential pollutants could be as obvious as fuel oil or as subtle as lead-based paint."

Willis said he knows that sinking a large ship will take money, but he said the charity is up for the task.

"It would cost less to put out another barge, but we want to do something more dramatic," Willis said. "There are enough people living in the Tampa Bay area who like to fish and dive that we think we will get the support we need."

Hasbrouck said the effort will be worth it.

"Artificial reefs are not there just to collect fish," he said. "They are designed to create new habitat."

And once they are in the water, the benefit is instantaneous.

"A half-hour after we sunk the Veteran's Reef, there was life all over it," he said. "It was amazing. We just sat there thinking to ourselves, "Where did all these fish come from?' "

If you would like to help Treasure Island Charities in its effort to create an artificial reef, call (727) 363-0071.

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