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New artificial reef to occupy unique location off Dunedin

Anglers in North Pinellas will have a new place to fish soon.

Construction has begun on Pinellas County's 11th artificial reef at a site 12 miles west of Dunedin. The area, 1 mile long and 600 yards wide, will contain premanufactured polygonal and tetrahedron structures.

Later, officials will place native limestone boulders near the reef, which is about a half-mile from some existing natural hard bottom. This will give scientists an opportunity to study live and artificial reefs simultaneously.

In addition to the concrete structures, officials plan to sink three deck barges, each more than 100 feet long, at the reef that sits in 42 to 45 of water. Construction should be completed in three months.

Credit for the new reef goes to the Hurricane Pass Anglers Club, which collected more than 3,000 signatures and lobbied county officials for its construction.

Officials looked at several locations but picked this site because it sits in an area of open sand near an existing reef line. It is expected that fish will seek cover in the new material within a few hours and that soft corals and sponges will begin colonizing the area by the end of the year.

This new artificial reef will be significant for several reasons. For starters, this is the first time so many types of material (concrete structures, barges and limestone boulders) will be placed on one location. It is also the first time scientists will be able to study the growth of marine life on a natural reef and on an artificial reef in such close proximity.

Artificial reefs are important because so much of the Gulf of Mexico is barren sand. These reefs provide a place for free-swimming larvae of sponges and soft corals to colonize. As the reef continues to mature, cover will provide a habitat for juvenile fish to feed and mature.

The three-dimensional aspect of the barges will create a shadow effect that is sought out by certain species. The concrete tetrahedrons are 3 to 6 feet high. Other material includes light poles, cutoffs from bridges, a variety of culverts and boxes.

Officials estimate the barges will last about 20 years. At that point, they will be encrusted entirely in marine life, so the reef should continue to thrive.

Fishermen often ask if artificial reefs increase the fish population or just concentrate the fish where anglers can catch them. When a new reef is constructed, it will have a fish population within a few days. These are not actually "new" fish, but those that moved from an existing "live bottom" habitat nearby.

During the second and third year of the reef's growth, juvenile grouper, snapper, sea bass and flounder will drop out of the plankton and populate the reef.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Dr. Heyward Mathews, a marine biology instructor at St. Petersburg Junior College, did extensive studies on artificial reefs and determined they can actually produce more food per acre than a natural reef.

How can that be?

On a natural reef, the coral, sponges and other marine life grow in a manner to support their ecological needs. The fact that grouper and snapper happen to find it suitable is incidental to the coral's or sponge's ecology.

On an artificial reef, however, builders can deliberately shape the structures to provide maximum habitat.