A great gift for Father’s Day, a great choice for our water: Help us conquer the 1,000 Mini Reef challenge!

June 4, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

BY T MICHELE WALKER AND MARCY SHORTUSE – If you’re looking for a perfect Father’s Day gift sometimes the simplest things can bring the most pleasure, and can bring about the most change. That is certainly the case with a product that has come along in the last 15 years called a Mini Reef, which mimics the natural reef and root systems that have disappeared in large amount along Florida’s coastline. Ocean Habitats, Inc., a Florida nonprofit founded by University of South Florida biology student David Wolff, has launched its “1,000 Mini Reef Challenge” for Charlotte County, with the goal of bringing area waters back to life and reducing harmful algae.
For every Mini Reef system installed, more than 30,000 gallons of seawater are filtered and cleaned each day. Each reef supports the annual growth of roughly 300 fish and 200 crustaceans, and brings the water to life by enhancing the dock and waters around it, and by providing a space for fish and crabs to reside.f you’re looking for a perfect Father’s Day gift sometimes the simplest things can bring the most pleasure, and can bring about the most change. That is certainly the case with a product that has come along in the last 15 years called a Mini Reef, which mimics the natural reef and root systems that have disappeared in large amount along Florida’s coastline. Ocean Habitats, Inc., a Florida nonprofit founded by University of South Florida biology student David Wolff, has launched its “1,000 Mini Reef Challenge” for Charlotte County, with the goal of bringing area waters back to life and reducing harmful algae.
Wolff said it took more than 100 prototypes to get it right, but the first Mini Reef system was placed in Marco Island waters, in Collier County. In areas such as Marco Island and Cape Coral, many of the canals are considered all but devoid of aquatic life due to poor construction practices. The city hired Ocean Habitat to install 25 reef systems in a canal to re-establish dwindling fish nurseries, and they quickly became popular with island residents. In turn those island residents purchased more than 175 additional systems to install under their own docks. Since the 2016 project more residents have joined Wolff’s Ocean Habitats efforts, and now there are hundreds of Mini Reefs lining the canals of Marco Island.
Charlotte Harbor Estuary, the second largest bay in Florida, is considered a threatened ecosystem primarily because of the rapid increase of growth and development, poor land use policies and the overuse of natural resources. According to the Charlotte Harbor Seven County Watershed Report, bacteria and nutrient problems are numerous and growing worse each year. The harbor’s mouth is located behind Gasparilla Island, one of the many coastal barrier islands on the southwest coast of Florida, with access from the Gulf of Mexico through the Boca Grande Pass between Gasparilla Island on the north and Cayo Costa Island on the south.
To counteract the damage, Ocean Habitat teamed with The Bocilla Island Conservancy to install the underwater Mini Reef, a complete, self-sustaining artificial under-dock habitat for fish, crustaceans, and ocean-life. The Mini Reef enhances the life and ecosystem of coastal waters and is made out of strong materials, able to withstand a category four hurricane and creating an artificial reef teeming with ocean life for over 500 years.
So how well do Mini Reefs work? Wolff said he worked on an artificial reef as a University of South Florida marine biology student in the 1990s. At the time, the focus was cleaning water for the aquaculture industry, but when he retired after a successful career in real estate Wolff revived the technology to recreate habitats in the “biological deserts” of canals found along Florida’s coast.

Mini Reefs start to sprout life not long after being placed in the water.

“We were working on creating the perfect habitat for aquaculture because the biomass filters an enormous amount of water,” he said. “We set a 100,000-foot containment boom around the habitats and the water was clear in 24 hours – we had to pump dirty canal water back into the system to keep the creatures alive. Of course, most Florida canals flush with tides and are loaded with nutrients from adjacent landscapes, so starving marine creatures isn’t likely.”
The reef works by creating a space that is similar to natural fish habitats in saltwater environments, present in marshlands or coastal waters that promote the growth of young crustaceans and fish. Within three to six months, ocean life will fully develop on the reef and begin to filter the waters around the dock, replicating the natural plant and life growth in a swampland or mangrove forest.
The Mini Reefs help to return the natural function to our current man-made shorelines and allows pollution to be filtered out. Some say they could be the key to removing harmful algae thought to be responsible for red tide. The Mini Reef’s underwater latticework can serve the same role as mangrove roots, providing a place for filter feeders to settle, filtering the water and cutting down on algae blooms. That is very important as mangroves, while protected, are cut down every day with the construction of new homes. Their root systems provide shelter against storms on beachfront property, serve as nurseries and shelter for creatures young and old, and provide vital food sources for those same animals.
Where there were once mangrove forests, there are now canal systems with seawalls and boat docks. Typically, these canals have poor water quality because of the surrounding land uses and a lack of tidal flushing. The canals are lined with expensive waterfront homes, restoring natural habitats would be nearly impossible.
Lisa Haney, the Events Coordinator for Bocilla Island Conservancy says the Community Foundation of Sarasota County awarded them a grant to help fund the challenge. Ocean Habitats has announced that once the challenge is complete, the Mini Reefs will filter nearly 11 billion gallons of water per year, while growing more than 500,000 fish, shrimp, and crabs.
For more information about Mini Reefs in general go to oceanhabitatsinc.com, or call (800) 674-2593.