Monday, November 28, 2016

Upcycling, the Ocean, and Artificial Reefs


    The importance of reefs cannot be overstated. They protect our coastlines, harbor wildlife, and promote tourism, but reefs are in danger, and though regulation and preventative measures are being implemented to reduce risk and harm there must be something done to restore already damaged habitats. This is the role of the artificial reef.

Artificial reefs are man made structures that are employed to promote biodiversity in aquatic ecosystems. They also help to reverse damage from commercial fishing practices, restore inshore fisheries, promote sustainable fishing, and increase ecological awareness and tourism. These reefs are the structure that coral and sponges require to settle and grow, which in turn provide a  foundation for a vast array of wildlife.

Left: Boundary Stone. Mid/Right: Reef Balls.

The first artificial reefs that were built to foster wildlife date back to the mid-17th century, with Japanese fishermen building large bamboo structures that they submerged offshore. In moderns times several companies have developed environmentally friendly structures that have proven successful in forming new habitats, such as reef balls and boundary stones.

Another method for creating these artificial reefs has gained traction recently, a method that finds its inspiration in disaster on the high seas. The shipwreck.

For decades now divers have been exploring ship and plane wrecks, some in hopes of discovering lost Spanish treasure and others to appreciate the vibrant marine life that finds shelter within these sunken structures. The observed success of these accidental nursing shelters has served as a proof of concept for artificial reef programs.


Today, decommissioned ships and other structures are purposefully sunk to replicate shipwrecks. They are prepped for both environmental and diver safety, with toxic materials and dangerous features removed before they are sunk.

The benefits of artificial reefs have attracted the interest of both the private and the public sectors. One example is the Artificial Reef Team, a department of Texas Parks & Wildlife, who are tasked with locating and ensuring the environmental safety of potential reef structures and then monitoring their development after they have been sunk. They upcycle marine vessels, excess material from construction, and have even worked with corporate petroleum companies to convert decommissioned drilling rigs into reefs.

The USNS General Hoyt S. Vanderberg, sunk in 2007. It is the second-largest artificial reef in the world.
In addition to the ecological benefits of the artificial reefs, they also yield monetary incentives. Tourists are attracted to the majesty of the reefs just as the wildlife is. Many visit to dive and explore the sunken ships, while others reap the benefits of the increased number of game fish. Their patronage supports local businesses, who in turn contribute to further rehabilitation and reformation of local ecosystem.

But, there are detractors, most of whom point to the failed projects of the past and the impact that artificial reefs can have on neighboring natural reefs. These failures are largely due to a lack of proper scientific and engineering oversight, an example is the 1972 Osborne tire reef project, which is just one of a slew of  failed rubber tire reef projects that were initiated in the 70s and 80s.


The tire reefs were an attempt to reduce the overcrowding of landfills and improve marine life diversity at the same time.They were rarely anchored, causing tires to float off and cause damage to natural reefs; they were connected with nylon and steel wire that broke off, damaging marine life as it traveled on currents; and when the prior issues were accounted for it was found that they didn't provide the surface area necessary for coral and other marine life to attach to it.

Over the years scientists and engineers have learned from these failed projects. The many examples of poor planning and contradictory results have shown them what not to do. Though there may be some unforeseen, or unheard, consequences of building artificial reefs the benefits of a well managed and ecologically sound project are well documented. What we must do is pay attention, scrutinize these man made cornucopias of teaming fish and twisting coral, listen to the ocean and its inhabitants' response to our endeavor, and hopefully find comfort in our observation of a job well done.

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