Four military shipwrecks scuttled in Florida Keys waters to attract scuba divers may be among the last of their kind.
Tighter rules on sinking retired military ships as artificial reefs would prevent reef organizations from acquiring ships like the Vandenberg, Spiegel Grove, Duane or Bibb.
In mid-2012, the U.S. Maritime Administration, which oversees decommissioned military vessels, moved to prevent any of its more than 150 ships built before 1985 from being used as reefs due to concerns of placing PCBs or other harmful materials into ocean waters.
"The regulatory landscape has changed," said Joe Weatherby of Reefmakers, which spearheaded sinking of the Vandenberg, a 523-foot former Air Force ship, about seven miles off Key West. Now the older ships, including vessels that saw World War II service, mostly will be assigned to be salvaged as scrap.
"It broke my heart to see old destroyers and other [pre-1985] ships going to the scrap yard," Weatherby said. "They're cool ships but very expensive to clean."
Reefmakers handled last July's sinking of the 165-foot Mohawk in the Gulf of Mexico, about 28 miles from Sanibel Island, as an artificial reef in 90 feet of water.
The Mohawk, a World War II-era Coast Guard ship, was in good shape for sinking, having been cleaned and used as a floating museum in Key West before upkeep costs proved too expensive.
Artificial-reef advocates in the Keys were active from the early 1980s through the 2009 sinking of the Vandenberg but no ship-sinking projects currently are being pursued.
Managers of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary said that after the Vandenberg project was complete, it would enforce a moratorium on new shipwreck reefs until more is known about their effects on the marine ecosystem.
"The Vandenberg took a lot of years and was expensive," Weatherby said, "but she's done right.... In the Keys, we try to make vacationers happy. I think our artificial-reef system is part of that."
The Artificial Reefs of the Keys organization, which organized the Vandenberg sinking, has closed up shop.
"We had a mission and we accomplished our mission," said Sheri Lohr, a former group officer. "We dissolved after a great success.... [The Vandenberg] is teeming with life and has attracted divers from all over the world. It did everything we said it was going to do."
Concern over use of toxic materials on older ships increased after a report by the Basel Action Network environmental group indicated higher levels of PCBs around the shipwreck reef Oriskany, a retired Navy aircraft carrier sunk in 2006 off the Florida Panhandle.
Inactive Navy ships technically remain available for reef projects but "the Navy has not received any requests from states or other eligible organizations for transfer of ships for reefing," Navy spokesman Kenneth Hess said in an e-mail. "The Navy has no current plans to transfer an inactive ship for artificial reefing."
The Diving Equipment Marketing Association continues to support creating shipwreck reefs that "meet the appropriate [environmental] standards," group Executive Director Tom Ingram said in an e-mail.
"Not only does shipwreck diving contribute to the dive-travel industry, it contributes to the economy of the entire region," Ingram said.