Walton County’s Gulf bed is made up of approximately ninety-five percent barren sand flats and out of more than thirty-five coastal counties in Florida, Walton is dead last in the state to have an artificial reef program…until now.
A passionate environmentalist, who enjoys spending time fishing with his family, as well as ecosploring and diving, Santa Rosa Beach resident, Andy McAlexander, had a vision over two years ago when he founded SWARA. (South Walton Artificial Reef Association), a 501(c) 3 not-for-profit organization.
The motto of SWARA is simple; creating living reefs for generations, but making it happen was far from it. McAlexander says, “It is a lengthy and costly process. Permitting must go through numerous agencies, such as: U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Army Corps, Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Walton County BCC, a process that can take eighteen months or longer.”
McAlexander reached out to what he refers to as “The Founder’s Club” for seed money. They funded the initial permitting for four snorkel reefs, and nine near shore fish/dive reefs, the C.A.R.P. (County Artificial Reef Plan) 10 year plan, and a L.A.A.R.S. (Large Area Artificial Reef Site). “ I’m honored that the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida, Alys Foundation, Howard Group, Stinky’s Fish Camp, and the T.D.C (Tourist Development Council) listened to the idea, saw the vision and gave us the support to get SWARA off the ground.”
Recently, in conjunction with SWARA, Walton County was allocated over $1,500,000 in NRDA funds for deployment. Not wishing to wait till December to see reefs in the water, the St. Joe Foundation and Alys Foundation dug deep, and donated an additional twenty-five thousand dollars each, in order to push forward a July 1, 2015 target date (weather permitting) to deploy the first snorkel reef in Walton County off Grayton Beach State Park.
“Our vision is one of the most ambitious in the state of Florida! We are beyond thrilled. State studies have shown that for every dollar put into artificial reef programs, nineteen dollars are returned annually to the community!” McAlexander explained.
Walton County boasts some of the deepest near-shore water in the Gulf of Mexico, allowing for recreational activities such as kayak/paddleboard fishing, scuba diving, and snorkeling. Artificial reefs are a necessity to populate the Gulf with marine life, coral growth, and instantly replace damaged or dying reefs. Currently, an estimated 3,500 structures are planned for deployment along South Walton’s coastline. McAlexander says, “Fishing alone is a five billion dollar industry in Florida, but SWARA impacts tourism in ways that will also effect our economy. The reefs are accessible to all, and everyone attracted to South Walton will benefit. According to University of Florida Sea Grant, artificial reefs create jobs both directly and indirectly related to eco-tourism.”
Without a pass into the Gulf of Mexico, much of South Walton’s activities are beach-related, and most tourists visiting don’t bring a boat with them. By building and deploying artificial reef habitats near shore (composed of concrete and limestone), and launching them at public beach accesses, all one needs is a snorkel and mask to enjoy. McAlexander says, “Our goal is to help raise awareness of our marine resources while we learn, observe and protect them. This is truly a game changer for our town, and for those seeking eco-adventures.”
A big bonus for SWARA was the addition of Bill Horn to the board of directors. He recently retired from a 30-year career as a fisheries biologist with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Artificial Reef Program and returned home to Seagrove Beach, his hometown since 1959. “This is kind of like having Joe Montana come out of Notre Dame and want to play for your team,” said Andy McAlexander.
“Our community truly believes in this cause, supports the vision and will hopefully reap the benefits of SWARA”, McAlexander says, “This projects allows everyone a chance to enhance our community and the environment, simultaneously. It is a win for locals, visitors and the environment! It’s a win, win, win!”
Visit waltonreefs.org for more information, or visit their Facebook page: South Walton Artificial Reef Association.
Note: In June 2015, County Commissioners approved that the Walton County Tourist Development Council can give 150,000 to the South Walton Artificial Reef Association, or SWARA. Look for deployment off of Grayton Beach July 10, 2015 at 10am, on the beach.
Susan Benton is the owner of 30AEATS.com, where she writes about local chefs, restaurants, fishermen, producers and the secrets of Gulf Coast food. She is publishing a cookbook about the South Walton area and restaurants in 2015.