Artificial reefs provide benefits to the environment and the local community.
By Neville Copperthwaite
A marine consultant and Project Coordinator of Weymouth and Portland Wreck to Reef (www.wrecktoreef.co.uk).
It might seem as though man-made artificial reefs are a new fad, but they’ve been around for hundreds of years. The Japanese introduced artificial reefs in the 1600s to improve fish stocks. Canada, the U.S., New Zealand and Australia have been purposely sinking ships as diver and angling attractions for dozens of years. More recently Portugal developed a reef system consisting of large concrete cubes, which they use as a restocking tool to enhance their inshore fishery. Concrete reef balls, developed by the Reef Ball Foundation in Georgia, have pioneered natural reef restoration in 56 countries worldwide. In India, villagers make triangular concrete structures utilizing the very sand from their beaches and then sink them to redress the damage done by commercial trawling. The list goes on.
You can see that the usefulness of artificial reefs is many and varied, and the reasons for creating them range from economic to social enterprise to environmental repair. In Plymouth, England, the scuttling of HMS Scylla as an artificial reef has brought with it an annual increase of £1.1 million (roughly $1.8 million US) within the local economy and has reinvigorated the local dive industry. In real terms, it means people get to keep their jobs and new ones are created, enabling coastal communities to stay together and thrive.
By and large, academic research shows that, under specific circumstances –– if the structure is heavy enough and cleaned before being sunk –– the biodiversity of an area will increase dramatically for two reasons: Artificial reefs provide shelter as well as a hard substrate for marine life to colonize and thrive. The latter point is an especially interesting aspect of artificial reefs: To watch the evolution of colonization on a “clean” ship illustrates nature’s tenacity.
Here in England many artificial reefs –– ships that were sunk during World War II –– are disintegrating. These ships were not cleaned when they sank, and yet without exception they’ve become havens for marine life. While I wouldn’t advocate the sinking of unclean vessels, this is an important piece of evidence demonstrating that nature overcomes, capitalizes and benefits even on these “unintended” artificial reefs. The eventual loss of these wrecks will result in a reduction of marine habitat, and our seas will be the poorer for it, as will the pursuit of diving.
At Wreck to Reef we’re attempting to redress the loss of habitat by pioneering a new concept in artificial reefs. We propose to sink ships as diver attractions and surround them with smaller reef material such as locally crushed and graded stone –– to prevent tidal scour on the wrecks and to restock with juvenile lobsters for the local fishery, and all of it surrounded by reef balls. A variation of this template could be used anywhere to suit local conditions and needs. What’s more, as a social enterprise project there’s nothing like an artificial reef to catalyze people.
While the positive argument for the practical benefits of artificial reefs isn’t so difficult to present, the philosophical case is –– either you believe that a featureless seabed should be left to nature or you don’t. Remember, though, that we already unbalance nature by fishing the seas, and while we might restrict and manage fishing, we will never stop. Artificial reefs are one of the few proactive tools currently employed within the marine environment to give nature a helping hand.
Artificial reefs are dangerous and only distract from the natural marine environment.
I’ve spent the better part of 40 years here in the Florida Keys, ran charters for five dive shops in the ’80s, and know there are some great reefs and genuine wrecks — including Spanish galleons — in these waters. So why exactly do we need to introduce more wrecks? Why not just spend more money and effort protecting the resources we have? I understand the competition for tourist dollars is getting fierce, and the plan in the Keys is to introduce several “pretend wrecks” so the tourist dollars will be spread throughout. But there are a few things that really bother me about sinking artificial reefs.
For starters, I have a problem with the simple act of calling them shipwrecks. Subway cars? Worn-out car tires? Broken-down cars? I’ve been diving real shipwrecks, hundreds of them, for 39 years. And yet at the trade shows every year, I watch the little TV sets and see the ships explode and sink. “Oooh, aaaah.” (What’s maddening is the video is always set to Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. I’ve seen so many of these sinking videos that in my dreams this song plays like Muzak in the background.) Some of them sink as planned, and some do not. More important, it’s expensive to sink these ships. Are my taxpayer dollars going to this? And in the end, do the tourist dollars make up for it?
There’s also the environmental aspect. I know they clean the soon-to-be-sunk ships well, but how well? Ignore for the fact that purposely sinking an entire ship is essentially dumping unwanted “trash” into the underwater world (regardless of whether we think it will serve a purpose in its second life), don’t purposely sunk ships disintegrate, releasing bits of metal and other stuff that isn’t natural to the environment? If I’m caught contributing any pollution going into the water the penalty is severe. Heck, they might even get me for kicking up dust with my prop. And yet in the case of purposely sunk wrecks and concrete reef balls, we’re doing it willingly. Don’t even get me started on the thousands of tires that were sunk off Fort Lauderdale in 1972 (and again in 1986 off the New Jersey coast). That turned into an ecological disaster of epic proportions. Nothing grew on the tires, some “bundles” broke loose and pulverized everything in their path and, in a touch of irony, other tires wedged against healthy reefs and impeded coral growth. The cleanup, once again, cost money.
I also have a problem with the safety of these wrecks. There have been fatal accidents on some of these artificial reefs. Don’t believe me? Google “artificial wrecks + deaths.” The safety people weld up hatches, trying to make sure they are as safe as can be, but there have been some incidents where I wonder if they welded up enough of them.
The bottom line is that I fail to see how the potential benefits in the attraction of more tourism dollars can outweigh the possible negative effects on the environment and the safety of the very dive tourists we’re hoping to appeal to. The environment should come first. After all, if we maintain the natural balance of things in an overcrowded world, won’t that attract the divers as well?