Seventeen nautical miles south-southeast of Pensacola Pass and 86 feet beneath the ocean surface lies a small artificial reef that, until recently, didn’t mean much to anyone beyond the fish who lived there, the anglers who occasionally visited and those that deployed it nearly 15 years ago. But now the reef, previously known only as EE-3, has new meaning to some well-deserving lionfish hunters and a new name: Sgt. James Taylor Waldron Reef.
A lionfish-hunting team was awarded the right to rename an artificial reef off the coast of northwest Florida after successfully removing more than 500 lionfish while participating in the Lionfish Panhandle Pilot Program.
The reef was named in honor of team member Taylor “Curt” Waldron’s older brother and fellow comrade in arms. Sgt. Waldron was serving in Vietnam with the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade when he was killed in action, Sept. 13, 1970, at age 20.
“After the Vietnam War was over, very few cared but me and my parents,” said Curt Waldron. “I wanted to do something more. The world has forgotten him; but they will look at that artificial reef name.”
A total of 10 persons or teams who participate in the Panhandle Pilot Program may qualify to rename an artificial reef. The program, which started in May 2016 and runs through May 19, 2017, also rewards divers with a tag that allows them to take an additional cobia or red grouper for every 100 lionfish removed off the coast of Escambia through Franklin counties.
Waldron attributes success to his teammates Bill Parsons, Chip Burger, Huston Parsons and TJ Huff. He also acknowledged Steve Hemmert of MBT Diving, and boat captains Doug Hammock of H20 Below, Doug Pacitti of Six Shooter Charters and Andy Ross of Niuhi Dive Charters for their support.
“I don’t think any one person can really have a major effect, it takes a team to do it,” said Waldron.
If you are new to lionfish hunting and think you can’t possibly get 500 lionfish on your own, note this, Waldron and fellow team leader Bill Parsons only started diving again in late 2016, after many years on hiatus. They took their first lionfish just days before the competition began.
“I have to admit it looked like we had a big hill to climb to get up to 500 lionfish for the reef naming contest,” said Waldron. “Neither of us had ever seen a lionfish in the wild, much less speared any!”
Waldron first realized lionfish were a problem in 2014, when he and friend Lee Fuscsick ordered some off the menu at the Lorelei Restaurant & Cabana Bar of Islamorada in the Florida Keys.
Almost a year later, Waldron and Parsons would come across the 2016 Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day Tournament and Festival. The weekend-long event kicked off two lionfish removal incentive programs: the statewide, 4.5-month long Lionfish Challenge and the more regional, yearlong Panhandle Pilot Program.
“The LRAD Festival really opened my eyes,” said Capt. Doug Pacitti, who has made it a personal goal to remove as many lionfish as he can. “It makes you feel like you’ve done just a little part to get things headed back in the right direction.”
Within six months, Waldron and Parsons both got their Open Water Diver and Advanced Open Water Diver certifications, so they could safely dive in 100 or more feet.
During the annual Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day weekend, the team took a total of 133 fish out of the more than 8,000 lionfish total that were removed off Pensacola alone during that time period. Between July 7 and July 15, they completed another 22 dives and removed 402 more lionfish. They were notified they had hit their goal in August.
“It really brings a sense of accomplishment that somebody you care about is going to be honored with a reef name,” Waldron said about the program. “We were thrilled that the FWC offered this as an option. Thank you for making a dream come true.
“Many years have passed since 1970, but I have never been confused by what the Marines taught me. I will be “always faithful” to the memory of those that gave the ultimate sacrifice. This is meant to honor all of our service members living and dead.”
Only four teams have qualified so far to name a reef in the Panhandle Pilot Program, and only one other reef has been officially claimed and named. The artificial reef now known as Moira the Mermaid’s Fish Condo is off Escambia County and was claimed by team members Bob Marshall, Brady Hale, George Riffe and Jennifer Day.
The annual Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day weekend is always the Saturday after Mother’s Day, and next year it will be May 20, 2017. Learn more about the Panhandle Pilot Program and how you can get rewarded for your lionfish removals by visiting MyFWC.com/Lionfish.