South Walton Artificial Reef Association Hoping to Hit the Water in 2014
January 9, 2014 by Manny Chavez
As a local diver and environmentalist, Andy McAlexander was more than a little concerned following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. He observed the aftermath of the BP Oil Spill as Walton County business owners struggled to stay afloat. His thoughts turned to better days and solutions to help get the local economy back on track. What could be done to enhance the county’s natural resources?
Then it “hit him like a thunderbolt,” Andy says. “Unlike our neighboring counties, we don’t have a pass into the Gulf of Mexico, so all of our activities are beach-related.”
His thought process soon centered on organizing and forming what is now known as the South Walton Artificial Reef Association (SWARA), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to building beach-accessible artificial reef habitats. A reef system consisting of a chain of artificial reefs.
“I bounced this idea off a couple of folks and we all thought it was a brilliant idea, a longshot, but a brilliant one”, says Andy with a smile.
Currently, the SWARA Board of Directors includes Andy as President; Jim Richard, Vice-President; Patrick Murphy, Treasurer; Neill O’Connell, Secretary; and board members Bobby Johnson, Don Roberts, and Cindy Stenberg.
“Walton County boasts some of the deepest near-shore water in the Gulf of Mexico”, explains Andy, “and this allows for recreational activities such as kayak and canoe fishing, skin diving, and snorkeling.”
Once the near-shore artificial reefs (composed of concrete and limestone) are in place, the coral growth begins almost immediately, attracting fish and many marine creatures.
“This type of environment would provide unique opportunities for locals and tourists to enjoy activities not usually available with sand-only bottoms”, continues Andy. “Our goal is to help raise awareness of our marine resources and how to observe and protect them.”
Eastern Choctawhatchee Bay waters are also included in SWARA’s overall artificial reef plan.
Artificial reef deployment monies (from the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) funds) do not provide for permitting costs. Working closely with the County, Andy has been able to obtain permits for four snorkeling reefs and nine near-shore fish diving reefs, all of which are public beach accessible.
He has worked tirelessly to obtain Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) grants, Alys Beach Foundation and Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) matching grants, and monies from various local and state donations and fund raisers.
"Artificial reef deployment monies are scheduled for disbursement in 2014 and having our permits already in place will hasten the building of our artificial reef system”, explains Andy.
As a 501(c)3 organization, charitable contributions will ensure the future of the reefs-the promoting, permitting, and monitoring of the near-shore system. Andy envisions month-long kayak-only fishing tournaments during shoulder-season months.
“We need to make people aware of our vast environmental resources. There is more to do here than go to supper, go to the beach, or go shopping…..not that there is anything wrong with that, but let’s give the eco-friendly, outdoor-loving crowd something to do-provide them with opportunities right here next to our shores”, he says.
Memorial reefs will also be available. Individuals or businesses will be able to buy plaques commemorating a loved one or to promote a business. These plaques are attached to the artificial reef and provide unique photo opportunities…. imagine a large grouper, school of fish, or sea turtle swimming near the commemorative. Each named reef will have its own GPS coordinate.
Andy’s vision seems to be taking shape…with the nearest artificial reefs in place “just beyond the second sandbar”, his dream will hopefully become a reality and we’ll be seeing a lot more photos of people swimming with fish on our facebook pages. The first of the artificial reef deployments could begin as soon as November, 2014.