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If you sink it, they will swim

Published Oct. 6, 2005

It looks like nothing more than a neatly stacked supply of PVC pipe.

But that 8- by 8-foot stack soon could become a hot spot for colorful coral, for countless species of fish, for divers and for fishermen. In a few years, thousands of these stacks could be spread across the sandy gulf bottom off Pasco County.

Pasco plans to become a testing ground for a recently patented artificial reef system that its inventor says will send fish populations soaring. The inventor, a Largo researcher, hopes to deposit 100 of the cubes 11 miles west of the northern tip of Anclote Key to create Pasco's third artificial reef. After a year of study, 45,000 cubes could be spread across that area of barren gulf bottom.

"This will literally spring life out of the desert," said Pasco Parks and Recreation Director Nils Hallberg, who is working with the inventor.

The concept of artificial reefs is nothing new. Sink an old barge, chunks of sidewalk, or culvert pipe, and within days organisms attach themselves and start growing. Small fish begin to gather, then larger creatures. Before long, humanity's discarded debris turns into a healthy habitat for marine life.

Pasco started its artificial reef program in 1980 _ one reef lies about 9 miles west of Gulf Harbor, the other about 13 miles west of the Cotee River _ and by all accounts the program has been a huge success, not only for sea life but for divers and sport fishermen. Pinellas County has 23 artificial reef sites.

This one is different, though. Donald Monus, an inventor and microbiologist working for American Micro Pfarm of Largo, designed the artificial reef seven years ago and in 1992 received a patent for what he calls a "revolutionary new design." One of the reefs sits in the new Mangrove tank at the Clearwater Marine Science Center.

To hear him tell it, in descriptions ranging from car salesman to technical analyst, the key is the way the pipes are organized. The manufactured modules include tubes bolted to one another and stacked in layers. Each layer of pipe rests at a right angle to the one below it, and each layer includes pipes of slightly smaller diameter than the ones beneath it.

"It actually is designed for the fish to become more fecund," Monus said. "It allows juvenile fish and juvenile organisms to shelter themselves without being predatated."

In other words, it makes it easy for small things to avoid getting eaten by bigger things. It provides more nooks and crannies for them to hide in. Small fish easily can flee into areas too tight for a predator.

At least that's the principle. Monus said he has tested the reefs in all kinds of water bodies, saltwater and freshwater. "Every place where they went the fish population exploded," he said.

"It's the most modern, well-structured sea habitat ever designed on Earth."

Pasco County officials are a tad less passionate about it, but they like the idea of adding a third artificial reef at no cost to the county.

"We would all like to see more," agreed Neal Barga, a scuba instructor with American Scuba and Water Sports in New Port Richey. "Divers, fishermen, anyone that likes the water would, because it gives us some other place to go."

The county will apply for a state permit to create an additional reef site, and American Micro Pfarm will cover the application costs and costs of hauling the modules about 14 miles into the gulf and sinking them in 40 feet of water.

Monus approached Pinellas first but found little interest. "I was very concerned about their stability on the bottom," said Bob Peacock, who oversees Pinellas' artificial reef program.

Pasco officials have similar concerns and plan to sink one of the 1,000-pound reef units at an existing reef site soon to test how securely it remains anchored. Monus said his self-anchoring units won't budge, even in a severe storm.

Once that test is complete and the Department of Environmental Protection issues a routine permit for the new reef, which covers 1 square nautical mile, Micro Pfarm will sink 100 of the reef units. The company has surveyed the area and reported that the bottom contains no grass beds or corals that could be damaged.

Those 100 stacks will be monitored for a year or so, before the county signs off on sinking thousands more.

"We wanted a test program first to test the viability of the concept," said Tom Brobeil, administrative services manager for parks and recreation.

Monus, of course, has no doubts about its viability. To him, Pasco's experience might lead to communities across the planet embracing his invention.

Hallberg doesn't know about that, "but we get a pretty reef out of this deal."

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.