Carol and Bob Cox of Mexico Beach were featured in the July issue of Field and Stream Magazine and honored by its Heroes of Conservation program for their volunteer work with the Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association.
For their conservation work, MBARA was awarded a $500 grant from Toyota Motor Sales USA, Inc.
The Cox’s will also be eligible to win a grand prize of $5,000 and a new Toyota Tundra.
Each month, the magazine profiles three grassroots conservationists who go above and beyond in the protection of fish, wildlife and habitat.
The duo applied for the Field and Stream award online by submitting a detailed breakdown of the work they had accomplished with MBARA. They were eager to seek additional grant money for a cause they are passionate about.
Prior to becoming involved with the reef association, Carol and Bob, who consider themselves “Citizen Scientists,” were stationed on an Air Force base in Guam, a tropical location near the equator known for its coral reefs and clear water.
Already active with fishing, waterskiing and snorkeling, Carol urged Bob to take scuba lessons with her, though he was hesitant to do so.
“I was always fascinated by Jacques Cousteau,” said Carol. “Once Bob got started, he was more enthusiastic about it than I was.”
The pair continued to dive around Guam with Bob eventually becoming a certified Dive Instructor, and Carol, a Dive Master.
In 1998 they were stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base after specifically asking for a Florida assignment. While on base they spotted a brochure for the MBARA and soon became members.
“While we’re here, we may as well do something to improve diving and fishing,” recalled Carol. “The military engrains volunteerism into people.”
Within a few months of joining MBARA, Carol had been elected to the position of secretary. The couple became involved with events like the annual Kingfish Tournament where Carol spent several years as the official tournament photographer.
While in Guam, the couple became fascinated with the local underwater scene and soon learned the art of underwater photography and videography.
The Cox’s praised the MBARA for its active efforts at preserving and encouraging marine life in the waters off Mexico Beach.
“The MBARA is an active organization. You see all the good it does,” said Carol.
According to the Coxes, when the moved to the area in 1998, there were very few places to dive or fish in Mexico Beach, but the MBARA has helped to establish over 140 sites.
Just a few years ago, red snapper was rare in Mexico Beach. Carol reported that the city now has “one of the best snapper fisheries in the state of Florida.”
Bob, now president of the MBARA, and Carol, treasurer, spend their volunteer time conducting surveys on the artificial reefs and examining their structures as they seek out ways to improve future reefs. They also perform fish counts around established reefs to evaluate their performance.
In addition to creating certain sizes and shapes, the couple has found the proper materials that will bring fish to the area and allow them to thrive. They discovered that embedding Florida artificial limestone into the reefs mimicked the hard bottom that occurs naturally in the area.
“We’re helping the local fisheries grow to meet the growing demand,” said Bob. “We replenish it and make sure that it’s healthy for future generations.”
The association currently utilizes three shapes in their reefs. A three-sided pyramid design draws in larger fish; a flat, rectangular reef brings in grouper and gray snapper; and the “Ecosystem” design, which has multiple layers, provides crevices enjoyed by juvenile fish and black sea bass.
The Coxes spend time diving around the reefs tracking their progress, growth and fish that they bring into the area.
They regularly create reports on their findings that are shared in a database and accessible by engineers, the United States Coast Guard, Tyndall Air Force Base and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“The information is available to anyone doing research,” said Bob. “It’s great information to have, especially in case of a future oil spill.”
Their current project is to discover the cause of lionfish in local waters. These invasive fish reproduce quickly and feed on other sea life vital to the local economy.
The MBARA is currently researching methods for controlling the population, but currently, it’s a mystery as to why their numbers have increased dramatically over the last few years.
Bob said, “You don’t have to have a degree to get involved.”
The Coxes reported that their efforts and the impact have caught the attention of surrounding counties and Bob had been contacted by representatives in Bay, South Walton, Hernando and Taylor Counties seeking advice on how to create similar non-profits that may have an equally positive impact on their local marine life.
The Coxes are pleased with their feature in Field and Stream Magazine, though they see it as an opportunity to shine a light on the organization that they’re so passionate about and put Mexico Beach on the map as one of the United States’ best diving locations.
“So many people don’t know what we have in our backyard. They go to the Caribbean to dive,” said Bob.
The organization’s annual Kingfish Tournament takes place Aug. 24. Registration fees for the event serve as a fundraiser for the MBARA. There are divisions for recreational and professional fishermen. Those interested in volunteering can get in touch through the MBARA website.
The MBARA has 250 active members. The annual membership fee is $35 and goes toward building the next wave of artificial reefs. The organization meets the first Thursday of each month at the Mexico Beach Civic Center. Those looking to support the organization can visit their online store for maps of their reef locations or coordinates that can be directly uploaded to a GPS device. To learn more about the organization, visit the MBARA online at www.mbara.org.