“Very pleased,” was the response from Keith Kolasa, Hernando County Aquatic Services and Waterways manager, after county commissioners on Aug. 24 approved funding for an environmental survey needed to build multiple new artificial reefs off the county’s coast.

The survey will assess 30 prospective reef sites between 12 and 35 feet of water for new reefs using federal RESTORE Act funds, a pool of money from fines collected from BP for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Kolasa said $2.5 million from the fund was approved by state and federal agencies several years ago for the reef projects, but county commissioners had to approve the study and design phase, an expenditure of $590,000. They voted unanimously and without discussion to fund the study.

“After five years of work, I’m glad we can move forward,” said Kolasa, adding the study, which also includes reef design work and permitting, will begin next month.

The plan is to create several new reefs, including a veteran’s memorial reef with submerged statues honoring U.S. veterans similar to what Pinellas County has done, Kolasa said. Some of the planned reefs will be tailored for divers, while others would be geared toward anglers.

Kolasa said the permitting process can be lengthy, and he doesn’t expect work on reef building to begin any sooner than 2023 or 2024. Once the reefs are completed, Hernando County will finally have the caliber of fishing and diving to help it compete with other Florida fishing and diving destinations, said Kolasa.

The Gulf bottom off Hernando is fairly featureless, with the exception of some natural limestone areas. While the rocks attract a number of fish species and offer quality fishing, they aren’t much to look at for divers, said Kolasa.

“With the planned reefs we’ll be able to attract divers for return dives, not just once,” he said, adding long-range, he would like to see a deep-water diving reef in 65 feet of water with its central structure being a 100- to 150-foot steel ship divers could explore. Such a reef would be a major draw for divers and anglers, and would boost county tourism.

Meanwhile, improving existing county reefs on a smaller scale continues. Using donated materials and county funds, Kolasa said contractor Reef Innovations deployed 12 more concrete reef balls at the Bendickson Reef 20 miles west of Hernando Beach last week as part of an ongoing project to create a trail between two portions of the reef divers can follow.

Typically, visibility at the reef site might be no more than 30 feet, said Kolasa, and the trail will help divers find their way between sections of the reef, which is spread out over about 10 acres of bottom. It’s made up of concrete culverts, other rubble, a large sailboat known as the “Ghost Ship,” and a number of scrapped M60 battle tanks.

Some 20 years after construction of the reef commenced, it’s become a fish magnet, attracting gag and red grouper, mangrove and gray snapper, cobia, barracuda, kingfish, Spanish mackerel and hogfish. Bendickson is on the hotspot list of many local and visiting anglers and spear-fishers.