CLEARWATER — Forty years ago, oceanographer Heyward Mathews organized a barge to drop thousands of pounds of concrete in the waters just west of Pier 60.
Over the decades, it became a thriving marine ecosystem for fishermen to reel in the snapper, grouper and flounder living there.
But during a recent reef cleanup, volunteer divers discovered most of the artificial reef had sunk deep into the sea floor — which solved the mystery of why so many anglers were coming off the pier empty handed lately.
Now the same oceanographer is working to build a new habitat off Pier 60, improving one of the only artificial reefs in Tampa Bay accessible without a boat.
“Some people come out here and fish for their food,” said Mathews, a St. Petersburg College professor. “It’s something that can last another 40 to 50 years.”
There are 13 artificial reefs built through the Pinellas County program Mathews launched in the 1970s, now the largest system in the state.
They help restore fish habitats, boost populations for anglers and play a vital role in the local tourism industry, said program manager Charles Mangio.
More than 1,800 people in Pinellas County use the artificial reefs every day and spend more than $79 million in the area annually, according to a study by the Florida Sea Grant and University of Florida.
“These reefs not only provide habitat for a wide variety of marine fish and invertebrates, but the solid substrate will turn a bare sand bottom into a very productive marine community,” Mathews said. “The algae that attach to the reef structures will actually increase the total food production on the sea floor.”
T.J. Murphy, Clearwater marine operations supervisor and former SPC student of Mathews, said the new artificial reef off Pier 60 will have minimal cost to the city, if any.
The rows of concrete culvert, mostly old stormwater infrastructure, will be donated material from construction sites, and officials will use the city’s barge and current employees to plant it underwater.
If the project is granted the required state permit, Murphy said work could begin on the reef next summer. With local waters having suffered from algae blooms, the BP oil spill and concerns of overfishing, Murphy said the reef will play an environmental and tourism role.
“I grew up here in the 1970s, and used to go out here to catch buckets of scallops,” he said. “Now you go out there and how many do you see?”
The reef will be placed in the waters directly in front of and around the end of the pier, which will be closer for fishermen than the current reef 160 feet out.
While the project is still in its infancy, Murphy said he has a thought for what he’d like to see the reef be named.
“The Heyward Mathews reef,” Murphy said. “He trained all of us. Every single person in this industry locally.”
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.
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