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Dear EarthTalk: What are the effects of dumping man-made structures, like old cars and boats, into the sea for use as artificial reefs?

-- Jed Gore, Stamford, Conn.

Coral reefs teeming with marine life are a magnet for fishermen and divers, but such underwater paradises exist only in tropical areas and certainly nowhere in the United States north of the Florida Keys. So in 1953, primarily to appease fishermen who thought such structures would attract fish, governments in some Southeast states began sinking car bodies, old boats, bridges and docks even airplanes, ballistic missiles and defunct oil rigs off the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, thousands of man-made materials have been sunk in the coastal waters of the region with the hope of attracting marine life.

Advocates of artificial reefs laud the structures ability to enhance marine ecosystems by promoting underwater plant life and attracting the sea creatures that thrive on them. Artificial reefs, they say, help restore and revitalize otherwise flagging marine ecosystems decimated by years of overfishing and pollution. Opponents argue that they are a sham and are simply a way for oil companies and other business concerns to easily dump things that would otherwise be very costly to decommission properly.

Jack Sobel, director of Ecosystem Programs for the non-profit Ocean Conservancy, says, "Artificial reefs are no replacement for natural reefs or for proper fisheries management, and we don't want people to view the oceans as a dumping ground for our wastes." Sobel argues that there is no scientific evidence that artificial reefs can sustain as much biodiversity as natural systems.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which sunk 100 obsolete combat tanks in 1994, would seem to agree. The agency now estimates that most of the artificial reefs they created in doing so will probably last no longer than 50 years. Sobel believes that such short-lived structures may threaten fragile marine ecosystems as they break up and scatter.

Because of such concerns and because many marine ecosystems have been compromised by human activity and do need a jump-start some innovative engineers have begun to design and deploy formations known as reef balls: hollow, dome-shaped structures made of marine-friendly concrete and designed to imitate natural reef formations. The South Carolina Marine Artificial Reef Program, for example, has deployed more than a dozen different artificial reef designs throughout the states coastal waters since 1983.

The Georgia-based non-profit Reef Ball Foundation, which was created with the mission of restoring the worlds ocean ecosystems and protecting natural reef systems, has conducted similar projects in more than 50 countries around the world. The United Nations Development Program even named the Reef Ball Foundation one of its 2005 Environmental Laureates for Technology for its work in helping increase marine biodiversity around the world.

CONTACTS: Ocean Conservancy, www.oceanconservancy.org; South Carolina Marine Artificial Reef Program, www.dnr.sc.gov/marine/pub/seascience/artreef.html; Reef Ball Foundation, www.reefball.org.

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

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