Artificial reef brimming with life

The former St. Lucie County Civic Center, battered by hurricanes Frances and Jeanne three years ago, now sits 57 feet deep on the ocean floor southeast of Fort Pierce Inlet.

The rubble of a concert hall that once played host to Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash doesn't look like much; it landed helter-skelter on a previously sunken barge. But last January's deployment now attracts a whole new audience - scuba divers and large schools of fish.

"We are trying to create additional recreational opportunities for anglers and divers," said Jim Oppenborn, St. Lucie County's artificial reef chief.

Dropping down to the man-made reef, a diver immediately is enveloped by a shimmering curtain of baitfish - sardines, pilchards, and glass minnows - that flow and swirl away from marauding blue runners, bonito and Spanish mackerel.

Lumbering placidly around the structure are approximately a dozen Goliath grouper, some as large as 300 pounds. The huge fish emit a deep warning boom that sounds like a bass drum if a human gets too close.


Milling around with no apparent purpose is a large school of snook. An estimated 10-pounder with a hook lodged in the corner of its jaw lay on its side amid the rubble, apparently exhausted from a tussle with a fisherman. When a diver gently sets it upright, it shakes its head as if to clear it and swims off as if nothing was wrong.

The community on the outskirts of the primary underwater drama is diverse: sheepshead, porkfish, barracuda, spotted eagle rays, Southern stingrays, gray snapper, Atlantic spadefish and even a mean-looking Cubera snapper. According to Oppenborn, nearly 70 species have been recorded on the county's artificial reefs - 23 of them in the snapper-grouper complex, which is considered overfished by marine scientists.

"We are giving them somewhere to live," he said.

The civic center was the eighth artificial reef put down off St. Lucie County since the program was reinstated in 2005. In June, the number rose to 12 when 2,000 of tons of railroad ties and concrete culverts were sunk at four sites near the World War II wreck of the Amazone south of Fort Pierce Inlet.


Despite their recent status, those structures already have attracted large schools of fish.

"A lot has to do with the relief," said Lee Harris, a professor of ocean engineering at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne. "The more relief, the more varied the fish types you get."

Oppenborn and Harris were encouraged to find juvenile grouper on one of the structures sunk in May 2006.

"We're trying to improve survival, growth and reproduction on the reefs," Oppenborn said. "If we can show spawning on our reefs, it will be great impetus to put down more."

He's thinking along the lines of tug boats, large steel bank safes and retired military tanks, such as the ones sunk off Miami Beach in the 1990s.

Perhaps the Goliaths will take over as gunners' mates and boom the sound effects.