July 3, 2019

Ocean Habitats
This Mini Reef, designed to mimic an ocean ecosystem, was installed under a Summerland Key dock in June, one of dozens sold to Florida Keys dock owners by the nonprofit Ocean Habitats.

Ocean Habitats This Mini Reef, designed to mimic an ocean ecosystem, was installed under a Summerland Key dock in June, one of dozens sold to Florida Keys dock owners by the nonprofit Ocean Habitats.

FLORIDA — Nature took thousands of years to build the Florida Keys reef. It takes David Wolff about 10 minutes to install a Mini Reef under a dock.

“There are probably between 75 to 100 Mini Reefs in the Florida Keys right now, and we’ll be down soon with about 38 more,” said Wolff, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Ocean Habitats, based in Micanopy in north-central Florida.

Looking like a cross between a bookcase and a layer cake, the Ocean Habitats artificial reef is assembled from environmentally safe materials so it “mimics nature, bringing an ecosystem under the dock where one would not otherwise exist,” Wolff said.

Ocean Habitats
A snapper finds food and shelter under a Mini Reef habitat installed beneath a canal dock. The unit provides a base for water-filtering organisms and protection for juvenile fish and crustaceans.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection regulates use of a Mini Reef, which is required to be positioned beneath a dock pier with pilings to ensure it stays in place and does not affect navigation.

The Mini Reef — 3 feet long, 2 feet wide and 2 feet tall — cannot be used in open water and must be installed by an Ocean Habitats staff member under terms of DEP’s authority over docks.

“There are almost 2,500 units in the state of Florida with a couple hundred more coming in the few weeks,” Wolff said this week. “In the Keys, I believe there’s already at least one on every island, except in Key West.”

A former marine biology student at the University of South Florida, Wolff was involved with experimental large “ocean ranching” projects that proved to be vulnerable to open-water conditions and a lack of funding.

“The interest wasn’t there in the late 1990s and everybody seemed to think the environment was fine,” he said. “Now the environment has really gone downhill in the last 20 years. I thought that we ought to do something about it.”

Wolff sold his real estate business five years ago and returned to his undersea passion, working on a series of artificial-reef prototypes based on his college work.

“Florida has lost a lot of coastal wetlands to development and seawalls,” he said. “Most of that was mangroves and their root systems. All our important seafood — lobster, crabs, snapper, grouper, hogfish and more — starts out in mangroves that serve as a nursery area.

“We’re not going to bring back all the mangroves and saltwater marshes that were lost, but maybe we can restore some of the habitat. There are almost a million docks in Florida. That’s a lot of potential area for manmade habitat.”

Mini Reef units allow larvae delivered by tides to settle on platform layers more successfully than on concrete seawalls or treated pilings.

“First, small shrimp and baby fish use the structure as a safe place to avoid predators, but soon other residents move in. Over 150 different filter feeders like sea squirts and oysters grow on the Mini Reef and spend their days eating the green plankton out of the water passing by,” the organization describes.

“A food chain develops and the larger fish like mangrove snapper come in looking for food,” Wolff said. “Then other things come looking for the snapper.”

The Mini Reef units got their first major test in Marco Island and Sanibel canals and waterfront areas in mid-2016. A few months later, the testimonials began rolling in.

Marco Island resident Andy Vogelsang reported, “The results are amazing. Even this early in its growth, we are seeing extraordinary amounts and species of fish under our dock.” Others reported snook and tarpon, with visits by dolphin.

About half the Mini Reef buyers “want to be able to see fish at their dock and maybe let their grandchildren try to catch some,” Wolff said. “The other half wants to improve the environment and help put life back in the ocean by filtering some of the water that’s not in good shape.”

Hurricane Irma hit Southwest Florida in 2017. Virtually all the submerged Mini Reefs weathered the storm, Wolff said.

“We lost only one,” he said. “That was because a boat broke loose and crushed it.”

Maintenance is limited to replacing the attachment lines every few years, he said. The main Mini Reef structure is designed to last many decades.

The Mini Reef price of $250 includes on-site installation. A portion of the cost is tax-deductible under the Ocean Habitats nonprofit status. Sales currently are limited to Florida. Wolff said he is working to create a for-profit entity that will be able to ship out of state.

For more information, visit oceanhabitatsinc.com or the Ocean Habitats page on Facebook.

kwadlow@keysnews.com