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Study: Humans destroying local artificial reefs

Erica Martin

After a yearlong study with instructors from FSU Panama City’s advanced science dive program, student researchers concluded increased marine tourism is threatening area reef structures.

Funded through the National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) B-WET Grant, “Preserving our Underwater Pastures: Researching the human impact on local historic artificial reef structures” measured changes in reef sizes and fish populations between July 1, 2016, to July 1, 2017.

NOAA’s B-WET Grant promotes “meaningful watershed educational experiences” for K-12 students, according to NOAA’s Office of Education.

Sixteen high school students and four area teachers participated in the study, diving at Black Bart, an oil rig sunk as an artificial reef on July 17, 1993; Bridge Span 14, part of the Old Hathaway Bridge deployed as an artificial reef on April 30, 1988; and Stage II, a Navy experimental dive platform that housed underwater experimental dive habitat SEALAB in the 1960s. Students chose the sites based on the high volume of tourism activity.

“From the very beginning, everything we have done has been student-driven,” program director Mike Zinszer said.

At each of the reefs, divers found evidence of human impact.

Black Bart researchers documented structural damage attributed to dropped anchors and divers tying into the site, measuring 1 centimeter of wear between summer 2016 and 2017.

“The windows of the boat are really easy to tie into. Over time, it will eventually rot off,” said Black Bart team leader Alyssa Bawcom. “Every dive, we saw a new hole from an anchor.”

At Stage II, researchers observed a deceased sea turtle wrapped in fishing line. The fishing line suggested that the turtle died due to asphyxiation and could not get to the surface and breathe.

Because of the expanse of the site, researchers had inaccurate measurements between dives.

“It was a learning experience,” Stage II team leader Dalton Nicewonder said.

At Bridge Span 14, which is a prime fishing location, was the most damaged structure with holes and missing pieces attributed to boat anchors. In some places, beams eroded 1 to 10 centimeters from chains rubbing the metal.

“Before too long, the whole bridge span is likely to collapse into a pile of rubble,” said Brett Kasztelan, who led the Bridge Span 14 team.

Divers also divers noted hanging fishing line wrapped around the structure, which can be harmful to marine life.

To prevent more decline to the artificial reefs, researchers suggested nearby buoys for divers and boats. The buoy system, which is used in Key West, could double the space for vessels without threatening the reefs, the students said.

Bawcom and Nicewonder will present the group’s research Sept. 12-16 at the annual symposium of the American Academy of Underwater Sciences in Alpena, Michigan.

Students in the program completed more than 250 hours of classroom and lab instruction for underwater research project design, data collection, statistical analysis, project implementation, and scientific research. The training designates participants as a “Science Divers” in accordance with standards set forth by the American Academy of Underwater Science.

The program also helped students explore future careers and college majors.

Faced with constant questions about her future, Bawcom said the study helped her determine she wanted to become a marine biologist.

“Through my studies in the NOAA B-WET program, I have my answers,” she said. “I want to learn what environmental effects humans have on the different forms of marine life and what I can do to help maintain a healthy marine world.”

Bawcom used her diving experience in a science project analyzing the effects of sunscreen on coral reefs. The project has moved on to the State Science Fair.

“When applying for this opportunity, I had absolutely no idea of how strongly this program would affect my life,” she said.

“This program is an extraordinary opportunity to introduce high school students to the many options they have for a career in underwater investigation,” students wrote in a report to NOAA. “This program is unique because this kind of research has never been done. … FSU Panama City and the NOAA B-WET program has set the standards for further research. We hope this study will be continued for several more years, and gather more in depth data of the impact humans have on the artificial reefs and the fish population in the Gulf of Mexico.”