Heyward Mathews knows the Gulf of Mexico like most people know their back yards. Mathews, the 69-year-old professor of oceanography at St. Petersburg College's Clearwater campus, has been diving local waters for nearly 50 years. The legendary father of the Pinellas County artificial reef program, Mathews has watched the fish and coral weather hurricanes, oil spills and more than one Red Tide. "But I started thinking that for all the diving, we really have no baseline data, no list of what is out there," he said. "If we have some sort of natural or man-made disaster we won't know what we have really lost." Mathews hopes it is a long time before we have another tragic event like the algae bloom of 2005 that killed everything from sea turtles to manatees. "But when they started talking about drilling for oil in state waters — one of the worst ideas I think I have ever heard — I knew we better start working pretty quickly and get some scientific data on our natural and man-made reefs," he said.
Mathews was one of Florida's earliest advocates for artificial reefs.
"You could sink a ship today, and tomorrow there will be barracuda on it," the reef pioneer said in 1991, when not everyone in the fishing community thought man-made structures were a good idea. "By the following spring, there will be juvenile grouper on it."
Artificial reef opponents have long argued that man-made structures do nothing more than concentrate existing fish populations. But others, Mathews included, believe artificial reefs eventually become self-sustaining.
In fact, he thinks an artificial reef might actually support more life than a natural reef. Unlike the gulf's natural limestone outcroppings, a.k.a. "hard bottom," an artificial reef has but one purpose, to provide fish habitat.
If a reef builder wants to attract open-ocean swimmers, they design the reef high off the bottom to give fish a visual location to focus on. If grouper is the desired species, then the reef is built close to the bottom so the fish have a place to hide from both predators and prey.
"We have one of the best reef programs in the country," Mathews said. "We have to protect them."
After the Red Tide of 2005, Mathews visited the Clearwater artificial reef with his students and found it nearly void of all life. He kept diving on the reef, noting when each particular species came back.
"We finally found our first starfish last Friday," he said. "It took five years for them to come back."
It may seem like a minor detail to most people, but to Mathews, it was like discovering a new species.
"It is important to understand what is out there, because if they do allow oil drilling, and there is a spill, we need to know what is lost for mitigation purposes," he said.
So Mathews joined forces with Mac's Sports, one of Pinellas County's oldest dive shops, to organize an ambitious inventory of Pinellas County's natural and man-made reefs.
"We are looking for certified divers who want to be part of a worthy scientific project," he said. "We will train and equip the divers. And when they get done with a trip and turn in their data, we will even refill their tanks at no cost."
It doesn't matter if divers inventory the same spot. All information gathered will be tabulated and used in the final report.
Mathews hopes to get hundreds of divers involved in this reef monitoring project. Here is how it will work:
A team of divers (they must work in pairs) contacts the dive shop and reserves a set of collecting equipment, which includes a reel, line, clipboard, data sheets and a PVC frame. The divers then pick a spot from a list of predetermined locations. Once there, they survey the reef (more details will be online at www.reefmonitoring.com).
"We will be looking primarily at the larger species … grouper, snapper," Mathews said. "We are not going to try to count each individual baitfish."
When the survey is completed (which could take several years) the information will be shared with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Pinellas County Environmental Management Department.
The first meeting for volunteer monitors is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at Mac's Sports (2126 Drew St., Clearwater). For information, contact Mac's Sports (727) 442-9931 or Mathews at (727) 799-4326.