From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
Dumping Old Vehicles Isn’t Cheap Aquatic Habitat
Reef Balls make safer deposited habitat
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, Connecticut
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 human-made materials have been sunk in the coastal
waters of the region in 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 over-fishing 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.
“Artificial reefs are no replacement for natural reefs or for
proper fisheries management,” says Jack Sobel, director of Ecosystem
Programs for the non-profit Ocean Conservancy.” 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 with the combat tanks 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 state’s coastal waters since 1983.
The Georgia-based non-profit Reef Ball Foundation, which was
created with the mission of restoring the world’s 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.
For More Information:
• Ocean Conservancy: http://www.oceanconservancy.org/.
• South Carolina Marine Artificial Reef Program: www.dnr.sc.gov/marine/pub/seascience/artreef.html.
• Reef Ball Foundation: http://www.reefball.org/.