What a difference three years has made for Ocean Habitats Inc. and the company’s under-dock, artificial aquatic habitats, known as Mini Reefs.
It was in July of 2015 that the first two of the small company’s Mini Reefs were installed on Marco Island, under the dock of a home on the canal that runs between Elm and Perrine courts. One year later, Marco’s City Council approved a $10,000 pilot project to purchase, deploy and monitor the performance of 25 habitats.
Today, what began with two habitats has swelled to about 450 on Marco, as word has spread of their success in improving water quality and the diversity of aquatic life.
“I think in a couple more months, we’ll be up to 500 on the island,” said Ocean Habitats founder, president and executive director, David Wolff.
The simply constructed devices are designed to mimic mangrove roots in creating a home for organisms, such as larval and juvenile fish, crabs, shrimp and lobster, which consume the phytoplankton – microscopic marine plants – that can discolor water. Cleaner water can also allow for the growth of the sea grasses that provide important aquatic habitat.
The smaller fish and crustaceans ultimately attract larger fish that feed on them and the improved habitat can also lure varieties of fish not normally seen in the island’s canals today
Designed and manufactured in Florida by Gainesville-based Ocean Habitats, the lightweight habitats are made from fiberglass, PVC pipe, polypropylene rope and crab-trap floats. They come in two sizes, the 24-by-36-by-24-inch Mini Reef and the 48-by-36-by-24-inch Mini Reef Plus. They are installed under docks by attaching them to pilings where they float just below the water’s surface, riding the tides, without interfering with boats.
According to Wolff, each habitat can support 60 different marine species and when fully developed after 18 months, they can clean 30,000 gallons of seawater every day by giving filter feeders a place to live.
Andy Vogelsang installed the first of his now three mini reefs in January 2017, shortly before heading to his main residence in Ohio. He returned to the island two months later to find that the habitat was working its magic.
“To my amazement, the mini-reef already had a heavy layer of growth on it, small bait fish were there by the thousands, keeper size mangrove snappers were everywhere, and there was a nice size snook hiding behind the piling next to it,” he said. “A month or two later I returned again and at low tide, I pulled out two huge horse conchs crawling around near it. I also found a couple of toad fish hanging out, close by. Obviously, I returned all of these creatures to their habitat unscathed. I was so impressed that I called David and asked him how many more he could install.”
Wolff is a former long-time Naples resident, with an academic background in marine biology. He remembers a time before Marco was fully developed and it was possible to peer downward and see oysters on the bottom of Smokehouse Bay. The retired, former real estate agency owner began working on the basic concept of the artificial habitats during college, but did nothing with the idea.
It was Jim Timmerman, member of the city’s Waterways Advisory Committee, who installed the first two Mini Reefs in the canal behind his home in 2015. He’d become aware of Ocean Habitats about eight years ago at a trade show where he was promoting his company, Dynamic Seawall Maintenance System, Inc.
Over the next year, he found that the devices lived up to their promise of improving water quality and the diversity of aquatic life. That led Timmerman to bring them to the attention of the Waterways Committee, which after investigating the habitats, voted to recommend the pilot project to city council in 2016.
Marco served as the first large-scale deployment of the Mini Reefs.
“The first couple years were slow,” Wolff said of Ocean Habitat’s early days. “Obviously, the City of Marco Island helped when they put in 25 units. There were a couple articles in the Coastal Breeze that helped people find out about it. Steadily, month by month, it keeps increasing. May was our best month ever. We sold almost 100 units, so they’re going out faster and faster.”
He said there are about another 160 mini reefs deployed elsewhere in Florida, as the company’s geographic footprint has extended to the Whiskey Creek section of Fort Myers and beyond, as far north as Pensacola and Jacksonville. Wolff said St. Petersburg and another Tampa Bay area city, Gulfport, are considering the habitats for their municipal piers and marinas.
By summer’s end, a freshwater Mini Reefs should be available, said Wolff, who’s shifted operations to Gainesville to be more centrally located to in-state clients. They’ve already attracted interest from people in Southeastern states such as Texas and the devices will be tested this winter in the lakes of Wisconsin and South Dakota to see how they fare when iced-over.
“It’s fun to go back and see units that are established and are full of life,” said Wolff. “I get emails from people who say I can’t believe I’ve got porkfish under my dock and all I had before were catfish and that was it. People are enjoying their dock being much more interesting when they look over the edge.”
For more information about Ocean Habitats or to purchase a mini-reef, visit oceanhabitatsinc.com or call 786-520-6459.