The new Pinellas Bayway bridge is not only a boon for drivers and boaters, it turns out fishermen stand to gain from it as well.
Forty-ton concrete sections from the old bridge were dropped this year into the Gulf of Mexico about 11 miles west of John's Pass to form the South County Reef, an artificial reef site. The new reef is about 1,200 feet long and 15 feet high in waters about 45 feet deep.
Bill Horn, an environmental specialist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said the contractor, Orion Marine Group, can choose how to dispose of the old bridge material.
The reef site, one of 43 along the gulf coast in Pinellas County, is managed by Pinellas County Solid Waste in coordination with other state and federal agencies.
"These reefs are tremendous for fishing because they (fisherman) don't have to go far to catch kingfish, mackerel, flounder, red or black grouper and hogfish,'' said Jeff Hubbard, a fisherman whose father founded Hubbard's Marina. The elder Hubbard was also credited with developing John's Pass Village.
Charles Mangio of Pinellas County Solid Waste picked the location and supervised Orion Marine through every stage of the 4 ½-month deployment of approximately 12,000 tons of bridge materials.
"We basically wanted large, intact pieces,'' Mangio said. "We didn't want large piles of rubble."
The concrete is cleaned and stripped of anything harmful or toxic to the oceanic environment, such as plastics, rubber or materials with toxic chemicals, he said. Metals are also removed to be sold by the contractor.
Pamela Hallock Muller, a marine science professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, said artificial reefs can be beneficial under the right conditions.
"Concrete structures are possibly the best possible artificial reef materials, at least after natural limestone boulders or structures designed to incorporate limestone rocks and with lots of crevices for little things to live on," she said.
One of her concerns is that the reefs may encourage larger fish to move from their natural habitat and concentrate at the reefs, where they could be fished out. She suggested that restricting fishing for several years would allow the hard-bottom community to become established.
Muller said the material used and location are important.
"The old tire artificial reefs on the east coast were a disaster that is still being cleaned up decades later,'' she said. "Artificial reefs should be placed in sandy areas where they won't affect natural hard bottom and won't be moved around by storms."