By: Michelle Klug
Photos provided by: Rob Bronson and Matthew Hardy
Many Floridians and visiting tourists enjoy the crystal blue waters that provide sunny days of fishing, diving and leisure time. Researchers have found that popular boating destinations are the artificial reefs that have been built around Florida.
Artificial reefs attract locals and tourists alike, pulling in $253 million to six Florida counties in one year, as well as providing habitat for sealife. These infrastructures are built using man-made materials such as concrete blocks, tires, PVC piping, old sunken ships or sunken oil rigs. They provide a habitat for an array of algae, coral, fish and shellfish, as well as preventing erosion.
IFAS researcher Bob Swett and his team investigated the economic impact artificial reefs provide, as well as who is using the reefs and what components are generating economic profit for the counties studied.
“One of the purposes of artificial reefs is to generate economic benefits for local counties and the state of Florida as a whole,” Swett explained.
The methods used to gauge this monetary boost were telephone, mail and email surveys sent out to two subsets of probable artificial reef users – residents and tourists. Residents were targeted by studying the use of pleasure boats and tourists by their use of for-hire vessels such as charter, head, dive and guide boats.
Questions about the frequency of reef visits, the purpose of the visits and reef related purchases were asked in order to pinpoint the source and reason for these economic expenditures.
Pinellas County had the most reef visits, with approximately 666,857 people visiting reefs annually. Lee County had the second highest number, with 500,457 reef visitors per year.
“Pinellas has more boats and it is a popular location for marine recreation, both for its residents and for visitors who come from elsewhere,” Swett explained.
Pinellas County also brought in the most money per year - $79 million on reef related expenditures.
“We looked at many things: renting cars, hotel stays, fuel, food, restaurants, shopping, entertainment – anything related to that particular trip,” Swett said.
Florida residents contributed to this expenditure more than visitors in most counties, but only by a small percentage.
In addition to the economic gain, the researchers found that artificial reefs generate 2,595 jobs in all six counties studied.
The survey also revealed that people are generally supportive of public funds being allocated to create and maintain artificial reefs.
“The support level was high, even for those boaters who don’t use artificial reefs,” Swett said. Pinellas County had the highest percent of supporters, with 71 percent of people surveyed approving of artificial reef expenditures.
County government artificial reef expenditures ranged from $20,000 to $60,000 annually. Swett added that some counties have axed artificial reef programs altogether. “If you look at what counties are spending on artificial reefs versus the economic return they get back, it’s quite a difference,” Swett said. Other artificial reef funding comes from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, grant programs and donations from the private sector - most likely fishing and boating groups. The research shows that artificial reefs are a publically supported resource that has proven to be profitable as well as enjoyable. “In addition to the fact that people like to fish, it’s also about getting away,” Swett added. “It’s time away from the stresses of life.”