Reef Today, Gone Tomorrow

By Eric Weather

On October 10th, 2018, Hurricane Michael made landfall in the Florida panhandle as a Category 4 storm. This powerful hurricane caused over $25 billion in damages on land, but did the impacts end there?  Through collaborative efforts from FWRI Fisheries Independent Monitoring program (FIM) and the FWC Division of Marine Fisheries Management’s Artificial Reef program, scientists are setting out to assess the storm’s effects on Florida’s vibrant offshore environment and map changes to publicly accessible artificial reefs. 

A 50 ft tall steel structure in a water depth of 80 ft, moved about 400m, or a quarter-of-a-mile, by the strong waves and currents. The dark area represents a large depression in the sand where the tower had sat since 1993.

During a March 2019 cruise aboard the R/V Kimberly Dawn, FIM biologists utilized side- scan sonar to map over 50 square nm of sea floor near the eye path of Michael in the Northern Gulf.  The images are now being compared to previously identified reef habitat in the area, and at first glance it appears the huge waves created by the storm displaced many artificial reef structures and reshaped natural reef habitats.  This image shows a fifty-foot tall submerged radio tower that was dragged over 1,000 feet along the seafloor!  Understanding fish habitat is vital to properly managing Florida’s valuable fisheries, and this study will provide key insight into how large storm events affect these resources.

A 143′ Navy tugboat, the “Accokeek”, artificial reef site as seen on side-scan sonar.