|Office of Water
Charlotte Harbor and
its major tributaries are located in Florida's southern central
interior and southwestern coast. The Charlotte Harbor watershed is
one of the largest watershed systems on the southwest Florida coast,
covering more than 4,400 square miles, incorporating three major
river basins within southwest Florida. The Peace and Myakka Rivers
flow directly into Charlotte Harbor, while the Caloosahatchee River
connects to Charlotte Harbor through Pine Island Sound and Matlacha
Pass. In addition to these major rivers, the watershed includes the
Winter Haven Chain of Lakes, Coastal Venice, Lemon Bay, and Estero
Bay. Charlotte Harbor is the nation's 18th largest estuarine system
and is an important part of the Gulf of Mexico watershed.
There are 23 local governments in the Charlotte Harbor
watershed, including Lakeland, Venice, Fort Myers, and Arcadia. The
area is divided into a number of districts and jurisdictions,
creating significant political challenges in terms of managing the
watershed as an entire system. Upland areas in the watershed are
dominated by agricultural activities and phosphate mining, while the
coastal areas are more urbanized and undergoing rapid population
growth. Maintaining water quality, wildlife habitat, and water
supplies are concerns throughout the region as human populations
grow and land use intensifies. Resolving these issues requires
cooperative management in the private sector and across all levels
of development in Charlotte County has been increasing since the
1940s. This early development led to large areas of wetlands being
dredged and filled for residences. More than 200 miles of navigable
canals are now part of the residential landscape of the metropolitan
area along Charlotte Harbor where the Peace River enters into the
Charlotte Harbor has important recreational and
commercial fisheries, including important species such as the tarpon
(Megalops atlanticus), snook (Centroponus undecimalis), and spotted
sea trout (Cynoscion nebulosus). Estuarine species are threatened by
loss of vital habitats such as seagrass beds and fishing pressures.
Fisheries habitats can be damaged by boats, dredging, nutrient
overloading, and conversion of wetlands to upland area. The
importance of fish populations to the Charlotte Harbor system has
resulted in efforts to enhance fish habitat, control damage to
seagrass beds, improve water quality and implement significant
restrictions on fishing methods.
Charlotte Harbor is located in sub-tropical
climate and its watershed contains large tracts of undeveloped areas
which provide habitat for a wide array of rare plants and animals.
General characteristics of Charlotte Harbor and its watershed
- Several endangered species, including the Florida manatee,
wood stork, Florida panther, and Atlantic loggerhead turtle.
- The current human population of 1.1 million (1997 census) is
expected to grow to 1.65 million by 2020.
- The area supports a wide variety of economic uses such as
tourism, ranching, citrus farming, phosphate mining, vegetable
crops, and residential and urban development.
- More than 275 species of shellfish are found in the Charlotte
Harbor estuaries, including oysters, clams, and scallops. However,
large areas are closed to shell fish harvesting due to bacterial
contamination and periodic red tide events.
- The total coastal population increases by more than 30 percent
during the wintertime, due to seasonal business and vacationing
tourists. Total annual tourism expenditures can exceed $1 billion.
- Recreational fishing is a major attraction in both inland and
coastal areas of the watershed.
The Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program,
Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Reef Ball
Foundation, Inc., and the Charlotte Harbor Reefs Association formed
a partnership to improve existing water quality and creating new
juvenile fishery habitats in these residential canals, as well as
under piers around the mouth of the Peace River and in the main body
of Charlotte Harbor.
partnership chose to construct and deploy five hundred Reef Balls in
specified areas. Reef Balls are made of concrete, placed on the
seafloor bottom, and provide a habitat for juvenile fish. Forty
volunteers from the Charlotte Harbor Reefs Association worked full
time for nearly four months to construct the concrete modules, using
molds donated by the Reef Ball Foundation, Inc. Three types of sites
were chosen for fish habitat improvement through the introduction of
Reef Balls, including existing artificial reefs, under private
docks, and under public piers.
- 210 Reef Balls were placed in groups of three in the harbor on
an existing permitted artificial reef site.
- Homeowners in the residential area of Punta Gorda Isles paid
for the installation of another 180 Reef Balls to be placed under
90 private docks within neighborhood canals.
- Finally, the remainder of the Reef Balls were placed under
piers along the mouth of the Peace River.
The primary objective of the project was to provide
more habitat for fisheries and to improve fishery production in
Charlotte Harbor. In addition to fish habitat enhancement, the Reef
Balls encourage the colonization of oysters and other marine
organisms, which filter the water and provide a forage base for
certain species of fish.
The Charlotte Harbor project areas
were chosen for fish habitat enhancement for the specific purpose of
providing fishermen a fishing destination. Much of the damage to
natural spawning grounds in the Harbor occurs when fishermen
traverse seagrass beds looking for fish. Seagrass beds provide
important habitat for fish by providing shelter and food, and are
particularly important for nursery habitat. Providing fishermen a
specific fishing destination will help to divert fishermen away from
shallow waters and seagrass beds to an easily accessible location in
The placement of Reef Balls under the piers at
the mouth of the Peace River in the upper portion of Charlotte
Harbor and adjacent to downtown Punta Gorda, was done to create high
quality habitat and attract fish to these sites. The three piers
chosen for the project extend into the river from two parks along
the water and are heavily used by the public for nature watching and
fishing. Fishermen and nature lovers alike will be able to enjoy the
large populations of fish from these easily accessible piers.
The project was initiated by a group of
conservation-minded fishermen who formed the Charlotte Harbor Reefs
Association, Inc., a non-profit corporation. Driven by the desire to
increase the number of fish in Charlotte Harbor, the group gathered
information on how to best accomplish this goal and improve the
aquatic resources of Charlotte Harbor. During the planning phase it
was determined that concrete Reef Balls were the most
environmentally compatible and appropriate type of fishery habitat
for the project. With the support of many fishermen, as well as a
number of public and private organizations, the Association set up a
plan of action that included the construction and deployment of 500
Reef Balls in three distinctly different environments within
The Charlotte Harbor Reefs Association
sought and obtained funding from a variety of sources, including the
Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program and Florida Department of
Environmental Protection. In-kind support services were provide by
Reef Balls Foundation, Inc., who donated the molds and assisted in
placing the Reef Balls on site, and the Florida Sea Grant Extension
office provided technical assistance.
The process for obtaining the necessary permits began in
July of 1997. Placing Reef Balls under private docks in dredged
canals within the Punta Gorda Isles residential area was a first of
its kind project. Obtaining permits for this phase required
considerable time and effort. It is expected that the great success
of the project will encourage state agencies to allow this kind of
project to be conducted in other areas of Florida.
habitat enhancement in the east central part of Charlotte Harbor
involved renourishing an already established artificial reef. Once
permits and additional funding were obtained for this project, 210
reef balls were added in two phases to a marginally productive reef
created 10 years earlier using construction rubble. The site,
located in a more offshore environment than the other locations
chosen for enhancement, is a mile in length and 150 feet wide, with
water depths ranging from 13 to 16 feet.
The final project
involved providing fishery habitat under public piers where it would
be accessible to everyone. Three existing park areas on the Peace
River were selected, and the Reef Balls were recently deployed.
- The project has united many interest groups, organizations and
government agencies in fishery habitat development and
enhancement. These groups included the Charlotte Harbor National
Estuary Program, Florida Sea Grant Extension, Reef Ball
Foundation, Inc., Florida Department of Environmental Protection,
and the Charlotte Harbor Reef Association. Future projects are
already being planned which include some of these same groups.
- The large group of volunteers, which dedicated many hours, is
responsible for making this fishery habitat project a success.
This group is now more educated about problems in the estuary and
the value of its natural resources.
- Groups in other locations in Florida are interested in
creating artificial fishery habitat under private docks. The
response from the private residences to have Reef Balls placed
under docks was overwhelming. More than 150 waterfront residents
were willing to pay for Reef Balls to be placed under their docks.
Not all of the requests could be fulfilled during this project;
sixty of these residents were placed on a waiting list for future
- Requests for further information regarding this project
continue to come in. The State of Florida is looking at this
project as a potential form of mitigation for wetland projects.
Although the Reef Balls have only recently been
deployed, ongoing monitoring has provided some initial observations:
The Reef Balls colonized with oysters and other marine
organisms much more quickly than expected under the private docks.
- Within weeks of deployment, large numbers of juvenile and
adult fish were utilizing the structures deployed under private
- Water monitoring efforts over the last twelve months around
the Reef Balls under private docks have shown "better than
expected" levels of dissolved oxygen.
- Reef Balls placed in the harbor were colonized quickly, but
crab predation scoured larger organisms. However, regrowth
occurred and different species of fish are now attracted to the
- Obtaining permits required considerable time and effort. The
great success of the project has encouraged state agencies to
allow this innovative project to be duplicated in other areas of
Estuaries and other coastal and
marine waters are national resources that are increasingly
threatened by pollution, habitat loss, coastal development, and
resource conflicts. Congress established the National Estuary
Program (NEP) in 1987 to provide a greater focus for coastal
protection and to demonstrate practical, innovative approaches for
protecting estuaries and their living resources.
As part of
the demonstration role, the NEP offers funding for member estuaries
to design and implement Action Plan Demonstration Projects that
demonstrate innovative approaches to address priority problem areas,
show improvements that can be achieved on a small scale, and help
determine the time and resources needed to apply, similar approaches
The NEP is managed by the US.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It currently includes 28
estuaries: Albemarle-Pamlico Sounds, NC; Barataria-Terrebonne
Estuarine Complex, LA; Barnegat Bay, NJ; Buzzards Bay, MA; Casco
Bay, ME; Charlotte Harbor, FL; Columbia River, OR and WA; Corpus
Christi Bay, TX; Delaware Estuary, DE, NJ, and PA; Delaware Inland
Bays, DE; Galveston Bay, TX; Indian River Lagoon, FL; Long Island
Sound, CT and NY; Maryland Coastal Bays, MD; Massachusetts Bays, MA;
Mobile Bay, AL; Morro Bay, CA; Narragansett Bay, RI; Neil, Hampshire
Estuaries, NH; New York-New Jersey Harbor, NY and NJ; Peconic Bay,
NY,; Puget Sound, WA; San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary, CA; San Juan
Bay, PR; Santa Monica Bay, CA; Sarasota Bay, FL; Tampa Bay, FL; and
Tillamook Bay, OR.
This publication is available
free through the EPA.
Ask for EPA842-F-00-005S at the
Clearinghouse for Environmental Publications