Okaloosa gets $450,000 BP grant to study reefs

Kari C. Barlow | Northwest Florida Daily News

Okaloosa County has received $450,000 from BP to pay for a study of reef development in area waters.

The grant was funded from a $57 million Deepwater Horizon settlement established to promote the tourism and seafood industries in regions along the Gulf Coast affected by the April 2010 oil spill.

“The basic objective of the project is to get a general estimate of the biomass that exists on the public reefs offshore of Okaloosa County,” said Scott Henson, who manages the county’s artificial reef program. “We’re looking at fish … particular species that are reef fish and pelagics.”

Henson came up with the idea for the study while trying to figure out reef density in Northwest Florida waters.

The county applied for $450,000 each year for the next four years but so far has been approved for only the first year.

Henson said the study will help provide the state with “empirical data” on various fish populations on and around reefs in Northwest Florida.

“What we’re trying to do is help the state verify the assumptions they’re making about our reef systems,” he said.

County Commissioner Dave Parisot said the study should provide the county with “valuable data” on the quantities and types of fish around the reefs.

“One of the big problems we’ve got right now is inaccurate counts of our fisheries,” Parisot said.

In early 2013, the county will solicit proposals from companies to conduct the study.

“We will put a bid out for the work that needs to be done,” Henson said. “It’s very specialized, very technical.”

The chosen company will use two primary forms of technology — side scan sonar and hydroacoustics — to study the reef populations.

The field work, which involves going out into the Gulf of Mexico and mapping out 600 square miles to study, likely will take a couple of months to complete, he said.

“After that field work, it goes into the data processing and that will take four to five months,” Henson said. “When all the data’s looking good and we’ve got it packaged, that’s when we’ll be able to go out on the Web and say, ‘Here’s what we’ve got.’ ”

Henson said the data will give the county another tool with which to understand the limitations on existing reef resources.

“If you think about it … artificial reefs and fishing are the reasons a lot of people come here,” he said. “The more often that we get to do this, the better picture we have. This type of study is something that’s needed to be done since people started putting reefs out there.”