A U.S. Navy ship that was heavily damaged by fire in July 2020 could either be scrapped for its metal or sunk as an artificial reef off the coast of Florida. 

A contingent of Florida lawmakers has asked the U.S. Navy to sink, not scrap, the 844-foot USS Bonhomme Richard, which burned for five days in July 2020 near San Diego, California, and was deemed too damaged to repair. 

With support from the board of the Florida Wildlife and Conservation Commission (FWC) and Key West board member Robert Spottswood, U.S. Reps. María Elvira Salazar and Darren Soto wrote last month to Thomas W. Harker, acting Secretary of the Navy.

“The Navy is projected to spend approximately $30 million in preparation to scrap the ship. Instead of sending it to scrap, we are hoping you will consider an alternative approach that would provide environmental and economic benefits and allow the legacy of the USS Bonhomme Richard to continue,” the letter states. “We respectfully ask that the U.S. Navy consider preparing and sinking it off the coast of Florida where, as an artificial reef, it could become an environmental and economic benefit to the local community and state. The USS Bonhomme Richard is an ideal candidate for artificial reefing and would be welcomed by the people of Florida.

“Importantly, we have previous experience turning ships into artificial reefs. Currently, three former U.S. Navy ships are artificial reefs off our coast: the USS Spiegel Grove off Key Largo, the USS Oriskany off Pensacola, and the USS Vandenberg off Key West. These ships created an instant ecosystem for fish and wildlife, created brand new recreational fishing destinations for anglers, provided a water wonderland to divers, boosted local and state economies, and increased military maritime heritage visibility for military veterans and historians. We are pleased to report that these benefits continue today.”

The letter and support from Florida lawmakers bodes well for the future of artificial reefs in the Florida Keys and throughout the state, said Capt. Joe Weatherby, an artificial reef activist who spearheaded the sinking of the former military ship Vandenberg off Key West in 2009. 

Weatherby and Capt. Will Benson recently formed the Recreation Action Committee and are working on additional artificial reef projects for the Keys, including off Marathon and Islamorada. Those projects are in the early stages, and no permits have been issued, but the Marathon City Council voted unanimously to support the concept and permit applications will soon be filed.

“We’re also hoping to go before the Islamorada Village Council in the coming months,” said Weatherby.

The Recreation Action Committee, which is still in its infancy, wants to explore the possibility of installing, in addition to artificial reefs off Marathon and Islamorada, a series of smaller reefs that would be mission-specific, such as attracting baitfish for Keys fishermen, Weatherby said.

“Artificial reefs are well loved and successful,” Weatherby said. “And we believe the marine sanctuary will look more favorably on the permits for them because the coral reef is disintegrating faster than we can replace it. We’re spending $100 million to replace coral when we’re not even sure that will work. I do and have supported coral planting, but I’m also an ardent and outspoken supporter of artificial reefs.”

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