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State sinks artificial reef funding

Hernando County's artificial reefs will not be expanding any time soon, much to the disappointment of county officials, local divers and Port Authority members.

Citing budget cutbacks, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has denied the county's request for grant money to expand and monitor the four artificial reefs west of Hernando Beach in the Gulf of Mexico.

In June, the department tentatively approved a $25,000 grant that would have allowed the county to add about 100 concrete modules to the artificial reefs. The department also was expected to approve an additional $20,000 for research and monitoring of the reefs.

Those earlier commitments evaporated July 1, however, when a DEP official wrote a letter to the county stating that the grants had not, in fact, been awarded.

"As a result of accounting decisions made outside this office, in association with the streamlining of several state trust funds into a single trust fund, saltwater fishing revenues allocated to the artificial reef program were reduced by $400,000," wrote DEP official Thomas Maher in a letter to Al Domenico, the county's waterways maintenance supervisor.

"This reduced level of funding allowed only eight grants to be awarded out of 22 applications received," Maher wrote.

Hernando County Port Authority chairman Jim Tomlinson said he was "extremely disappointed" by the DEP's denial of the grants. "This is a big setback for the reef program," he said.

The artificial reefs not only provide a habitat for marine life, but they also attract divers, snorkelers and recreational fishers to Hernando's coastline, which spurs tourism and helps local businesses, Tomlinson said.

Jim McFarlane, who owns a scuba and kayaking shop in Spring Hill, agreed, saying the reefs have attracted divers from as far away as Oregon. Some visitors have learned about the reefs through divers clubs that post information on the Internet, he said.

"It is disappointing," McFarlane said about the loss of the grants. "We were getting pretty psyched up to add the reef balls."

The DEP's decision will delay expansion of the reef program but won't cripple it, said county Public Works director Alan Holbach. The county can still apply for similar grants next year.

"We had looked forward to being able to put the reef balls through," he said. "We thought it would be a real benefit toward attracting fish life."

Holbach said he was especially disappointed that the county will not be getting any money to buy equipment to monitor the temperature, oxygen levels, salinity and fish life at the reefs. Such monitoring, conducted by volunteer divers, is "very beneficial in the long term if you want to decide which is the best type of reef," he said.

The four artificial reefs are in a 5-square-mile area about 18 miles west of Hernando Beach. They consist of 185 concrete modules, designed to mimic coral reefs, 20 battle tanks, concrete culverts and rubble from the old Sunshine Skyway bridge. The additional modules were to have been scattered among the tanks.

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