Before the discussions of which decommissioned ship, where to put it and how much the project will cost, the Marathon City Council must first decide whether to pursue a permit to install an artificial wreck off the coast of Marathon. Organizers envision something like the Vandenberg or the Spiegel Grove and say it can be both an economic and environmental boon to the Middle Keys.
“The council will need to agree, or disagree, to sponsor the permit,” said City Manager Chuck Lindsey.
The permit involves multiple agencies, not the least of which is the National Marine Sanctuary, as well as approvals at the state level.
“This isn’t like making a peanut butter sandwich,” said Joe Weatherby, who will present to the council at the meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 12. “There’s a lot of moving parts.” Weatherby represents Artificial Reefs International of Key West and CRB Geological and Environmental Services of Miami. He was instrumental in the sinking of the Vandenberg in 2009.
If the Marathon Council votes yes, that’s a green light to delve more deeply into the proposed project.
“The most important aspects are the cost of the project, and the economic advantages, as well as the environmental impact,” Lindsey said, adding that the feedback so far has been positive. Artificial reefs are often touted for their ability to reduce pressure on natural reefs, attracting divers away from a sensitive part of the environment. “We just need to figure out all the details.”
The Vandenberg was sunk a decade ago at a cost of almost $9 million. Most of that went to stripping the decommissioned ship of every possible toxin, including oil and even wiring. At 523 feet long, it became the biggest artificial reef in the Keys, or 13 feet longer than the Spiegel Grove, sunk in 2002 at a cost of $1.25 million.
Proponents of wrecks say the attractions bring business … big business. At the time the Vandenberg was sunk, organizers expected to recoup almost the entire cost in one year with extra dive trips and other infusions into the economy, such as lodging. According to information presented at the 2015 Florida Artificial Reef Summit, that calculated both fishing and diving revenue, the artificial reefs provide 40,000 jobs, add $1.3 billion to Floridians’ pocketbooks, and provide $250 million in state revenue. In the report, the Keys are lumped into the Southeast region (the most popular) that accounts for almost 12,000 jobs, and $457 million in income.
Andy Newman of the Tourist Development Council said a new shipwreck would augment what’s known as the “shipwreck trail.” The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary lists nine in the Keys.
There are about 2,700 artificial reefs in Florida – with another 70 to 100 added every year. An artificial reef can be anything from a decommissioned ship to a pile of boulders.