Artificial Reefs: the last wave of hope for our ocean?

By Heather

2016: A tragic year for coral reefs.

The Great Barrier Reef experienced its worst ever coral bleaching event to date (1). Corals worldwide are declining along with the sea creature communities they support. Many will have heard of the phenomenon of coral bleaching. It occurs when corals become stressed and expel their algae (the organisms they live and interact with which give them their colour). It comes as no surprise that humans are the source of this issue; both directly, through harvesting and disturbing these areas, or indirectly, through climate change, which is warming the oceans to a temperature that the many corals can no longer handle (2).

Humans are also their own victims of this underwater catastrophe. Not only do we benefit economically from the biodiversity of reefs, they offer coastline protection, food, medicine and recreation (3). Vast areas which, not long ago, were vibrant, colourful undersea communities supporting around one third of marine species have transformed into desolate, grey dead zones. Further, 75% of remaining reefs are under threat (2).

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Bleaching process of a coral reef near American Samoa. Photo: XL Caitlin Seaview Survey, via the Huffington Post

There is no escaping this grim reality. But all hope for reefs has not yet vanished entirely.  Actions are being taken to repair the damage.

During the 2016 Conservation Science Conference, Amy Kerr introduced us to a conservation tool that has been used for several years: Artificial Reefs. However, their effectiveness is currently being questioned.

At first glance, ‘faking it’ is surely a plausible solution to this problem. If humans have caused the loss of these magnificent structures, surely they can utilise their resources to aid their recovery.

Several types of artificial reef are currently in place:

  1. Manmade reefs are specifically designed to attempt to accurately reflect real coral reefs. Below is a ‘reef ball’, widely considered to be a successful at recolonising marine communities. However these present dangers to humans and may be disruptive to the surrounding environment (4).

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Photo: TA Marine Science

2. Discarded structures such as ships or tires are a popular form of artificial reef, which are known to become home to a diverse community to organisms. Environmentalists, however, have concerns that these structures can leach toxic substances into the water, and therefore do more harm than good to marine life (5).

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Photo: Richard Whitcombe, Shutterstock

3.Underwater Art Museums are a recent concept. They are manufactured to attract corals thereby combining culture with conservation. If these are successful, it is a possibility that it could raise awareness and dissuade divers from disturbing natural reefs. Take a look at this stunning video displaying exhibition by English Artist Jason DeCaires Taylor, who uses the human form to try and strengthen the connection between humans and the environment (6).

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Photo: http://www.underwatersculpture.com/

But…Is there a limit to how well we can replicate the intricacy of nature? Should we focus precious marine conservation funding on this somewhat idealistic concept? Artificial reef opponents believe it is a waste of resources. There are concerns they will fail to develop new communities of marine organisms and instead attract and displace fish from other areas. These new structures may also attract fishing in areas which already suffer from depleted stocks (7).

Amy remains optimistic and convincingly concluded that research into creating the most effective designs of reefs is crucial and focus must be placed on enhancing their long term success. In order to succeed, she suggested that regulations must be put in place in terms of fishing, water use and materials used to construct these reefs.

Time is running out, and if this is not done carefully and efficiently, the days for our remaining coral reefs will be numbered.

It is the worst of times but it is the best of times because we still have a chance.”– Sylvia Earle, Marine Biologist

References

  1. Authority GB. Interim report: 2016 coral bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef.
  2. Burke L, Reytar K, Spalding M, Perry A. Reefs at risk revisited. 2011.
  3. Brander LM, Van Beukering P, Cesar HS. The recreational value of coral reefs: a meta-analysis. Ecological Economics. 2007 Jun 15;63(1):209-18.
  4. Proposal for Reef Ball Submerged Breakwater [Internet]. Artificialreefs.org. 2016 [cited 17 November 2016]. Available from: http://www.artificialreefs.org/ScientificReports/bigplacesmallcaribbeanisland.htm
  5. Sherman RL, Spieler RE. Tires: unstable materials for artificial reef construction. WIT Transactions on Ecology and the Environment. 2006;88:215-23.
  6. Underwater Sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor [Internet]. Underwater Sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor. 2016 [cited 17 November 2016]. Available from: http://www.underwatersculpture.com/
  7. Abelson A. Artificial reefs vs coral transplantation as restoration tools for mitigating coral reef deterioration: benefits, concerns, and proposed guidelines. Bulletin of Marine Science. 2006 Jan 1;78(1):151-9.
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