SH1220reachgrp.jpg

Concrete reef balls like these were deployed offshore of Hernando County earlier this year, along with a large sailboat known as the Ghost Ship, to augment fishing and diving reefs. A nonprofit group called REACH has formed to help with the funding and labor needed to continue such projects in the face of county budget trimming.

WEEKI WACHEE — Hernando County’s budget crunch and the two-pronged strategy of raising property taxes while making meaningful cuts to bolster county reserves means some programs and projects deemed less than “essential” are under the knife.

A new group concerned that funding for the preservation and improvement of Hernando’s natural coastal resources is now here to help.

Restoring Ecosystems and Coastal Habitat has a mission of supporting efforts to “develop, restore, support and enhance nourishment of coastal resources in Hernando County for the enjoyment of our residents,” according to the nonprofit organization’s mission statement.

The REACH vision statement is to “balance the aquatic environment by restoring and building habitat and mitigating the effects of increased use of our resources so that Hernando County’s waterways are functional within a sustainable environment.”

Cutting to the chase, restoring and bolstering the reefs in the Gulf off Hernando is one of the most pressing goals, said Capt. Michael Senker, REACH president, a member of the Hernando County Port Authority and a charter fishing captain working out of Hernando Beach.

“We’re definitely getting a good response from the community,” said Senker, who noted the group became official over the summer.

Senker helped tow and sink a large boat earlier this year to add to the network of fishing and diving reef sites off the coast. The site also received a number of reef balls, or concrete fish habitats, that were scattered around the site’s perimeter to encourage fish to take up residence. The fish provide sport for anglers fishing the reefs, as well as attract the marine life that makes Hernando’s reefs more interesting for sport divers. The quality of the reefs is important to helping promote Hernando to visiting sportsman, said Senker.

“It’s great for tourists and a tourist attraction for Hernando County,” said Senker of a quality reef system. “Our ultimate goal is a major deep-water wreck.”

By major Senker means a very large boat or even a small derelict ship that could be sunk. By deep water, his group is thinking 50 to 60 feet of water, which would become home to species like grouper, amberjack, snapper, cobia and barracuda. Such a reef would become a “major” fishing and diving attraction, Senker predicts.

“We definitely could use something like that to bolster what we have and make it more interesting out there,” he said.

REACH depends “entirely on donations,” said Senker. It currently has about 15 volunteers and hopes to add a few more for projects to support the Port Authority to improve the reef system and support the county by providing free labor and funds from its own collections at a time when funding is stressed.

“With the county budget cuts were trying to raise what we can to make things happen quicker and bigger,” Senker said.

REACH also stands ready if the county needs volunteers to assist with work funded by the Deep Water Horizon oil spill settlement fund, of which Hernando is entitled to a portion. Senker said that money must be funneled through the county, then on to the Port Authority for projects, and REACH members, as supporters of the Port Authority, then help with any projects the money funds.

REACH is still working on a website and doesn’t yet have an phone, said Senker, but those interested in donating or volunteering can send mail to REACH at 7404 Shoal Line Blvd, Weeki Wachee, FL 34607.