By Martie Thompson
Growing up in southwest Florida, Joe Kistel spent his childhood fishing, snorkeling and at the beach. As he became older, he became aware that the reefs offshore where he enjoyed his favorite pastimes were actually artificial reefs.
“I realized an effort was made by individuals to make these reefs,” Kistel said.
Kistel developed an interest in all things aquatic and attended the University of North Florida, where he earned a degree in marine biology with a minor in engineering. He continued diving and even spent time doing research on coral in Australia.
Upon his eventual return to northeast Florida, he realized that the artificial reef movement in this area had been stagnant for about a decade. He soon became aware of a ship that was available to be sunk to form an artificial reef and he coordinated with other groups to make this happen. TISIRI was formed as a placeholder group that brought all the entities together to accomplish the task and in 2009, the ship, “Spike” became TISIRI’s first artificial reef project.
Kistel said TISIRI, which stands for “Think It, Sink It, Reef It,” has a main focus of providing more offshore marine habitats. The preference is to use recycled materials, such as concrete from demolition projects and old ships, with no other use and place them offshore to let the ocean “do the work.” Over time, a recreation area for fishing and scuba diving, not to mention marine habitat, will be created.
Shortly after the “Spike” in 2009, TISIRI also partnered with Mandarin High School to sink the remainder of the concrete reef balls created by students that had been sitting in the school’s front yard for several years. Kistel said this offered valuable educational opportunities for the students, but generally speaking, TISIRI prefers to save items from landfills and utilize recycled materials for the artificial reefs.The group holds federal permits for 21 artificial reefs, but needs to secure funding for the projects.
“The materials for the artificial reefs are simple to get, but the resources to move them out to the site are harder to get and more expensive,” Kistel said.
Since 2009, Kistel said there have been approximately seven offshore artificial reef projects that TISIRI has either taken the lead on or coordinated with entities such as the Coastal Conservation Association.
Contrast this with Volusia County, which Kistel said has made 150 artificial reefs offshore in the past seven years. Kistel said TISIRI’s latest pitch is to get local counties, such as Duval, more involved with the process — including funding.
“I’m proud of what has been accomplished so far,” Kistel said. “I am spending a lot of my time now advocating for the City of Jacksonville to take a more vested interest in these projects. Some counties have in-house departments or staff that work on projects like this on an ongoing basis. Artificial reefs are attractive recreational destinations.”
Another mission of TISIRI is to focus on education and cleanup. Kistel said that once an artificial reef is created, fishermen can fish within days. Immediately after a sinking, schooling fish that like structure for protection will appear and then bigger fish follow.
“Diversity of marine life comes with time,” Kistel said. “Algae forms rapidly and corals and sponges are slow growers over time, but usually within the first year. Within a few years, there is a fairly diverse ecosystem.”
To address reef maintenance, TISIRI has its Sea Saver Project. A network of the group’s divers can remove decades of snagged monofilament line and abandoned anchor ropes, which can entangle marine life such as sea turtles, in just a few dives. Kistel said he would like to scale this cleanup project up and make it routine every year or two.
“I think it is important to share the story of how these reefs are made and also to share the conservation message,” Kistel said. “With TISIRI, we aim to do just that.”
Visit www.tisiri.org for more information, and view TISIRI’s documentary, “Sunken Conservation” online on YouTube.
Photos courtesy Larry Davis
Joe Kistel observes a sinking for an artificial reef.