Tide Magazine, A CCA Publication, Jan 2002


Concrete Condos

They may not be as colorful as the real thing, but fish around the world are making themselves at home in and around artificial habitats known as Reef Balls.

by Mike Marsh & Photos by Mike Marsh

HARRY ROLFE stood beside yet another masterpiece. His artwork looked like a Swiss-cheese igloo as he deflated a plastic ball to remove it and leave a window in the concrete dome.

Indeed, Reef Balls are copyrighted works of art on a worldwide basis, and they are patented, as well. Beauty, as is true throughout the art world, is in the eye of the beholder. What to human beings appear as nondescript lumps of hollow concrete perforated with two- or three-dozen circular holes is, to a fish, a welcome substitute for the oceans' diminishing natural coral habitats.

Once submerged, Reef Balls form a base for tons of biomass to create new plant and animal communities. The largest Reef Ball, the Ultra Ball, weighs as much as 6,000 pounds, takes one yard of concrete to build and has 150 square feet of surface area.

The Ultra Ball can attract an incredible amount of biomass that attaches to its inner and outer walls and has a carrying capacity of roughly 425 pounds of fish per year. Its smallest kin, dubbed the Oyster, weighs as little as 30 pounds, requires less than a 50pound sack of concrete to build and is small enough to serve as a goldfish shelter in a backyard garden pool. Between those two extremes are five other sizes to suit most any inshore or offshore application.

When I met Rolfe, of Reef Innovations in Florida, he and his crew were in the process of building hundreds of reef balls at the state ports in Wilmington, N. Car. That state and Florida are two of the leaders in the use of this innovative product, adding hundreds of the structures annually through recent years to shore up their aging artificial reefs. Both public and private donations are used for these projects, with the private money typically raised by individual anglers, fishing clubs and saltwater fishing tournaments.

"Steel and other types of structure last only a few decades, while Reef Balls may be out there for 50, 100 years, maybe more," Rolfe said. "They were invented by Todd Barber, a diver who saw the decline in coral reefs and fish populations and came up with a way to rebuild them with manmade reefs. The beauty of Reef Balls is that you can make up one or two at a time and ferry them out to sea in a small boat, which really helps in poor areas, like the Caribbean Islands."

"Reef Balls may be out there for 50, 100, 500 years, maybe more"

The latest studies show that coral reefs have declined in all the oceans of the world by 27 percent, and

many theories as to what has caused he decline. It could be the result of manmade pollution or El Nino/ La Nina weather patterns. It also could be the result of atmospheric phenomena, such is changes in solar radiation or sun~pots or even variations in ocean temperature.

The latest studies show that coral reefs have declined in all the oceans.

Temperatures caused by the controversial specter of global warming. However, while the cause of the coral decline is uncertain, its devastating effect on sea life is unmistakable. Without coral reefs, entire ecosystems disappear, and sportfishing opportunities vanish along with them.



The advantage of using Reef Balls over traditional artificial reef materials is not only found in the ease of manufacture and transportation to ocean sites but in the environmentally friendly aspects of the manufacturing process. Tankers, train cars, barges, concrete rubble, rubber tires and other castoffs of modern society must be decontaminated of oils, asbestos, antifreeze and other contaminants prior to being placed in the ocean. Transportation costs, both on land and sea, also can be a hindrance to using "junk" for artificial reefs.

Reef Balls can be built on small land sites, hauled in small craft to an ocean site, and hoisted over the side with a boom and winch. They can even be filled with an inflatable core, floated, and towed across the water with small boats. Once at the site, the core is deflated and removed, and the Reef Ball sinks.

Reef Balls resulted in a 30 percent increase in the pier's catch of flounder.

The manufacturing process is actually quite simple. Concrete is poured into a fiberglass mold, and various sizes of inflatable plastic balls are placed in the mold to create the openings in the walls. Once the concrete sets, the outer mold is unbolted and the inner buoy is deflated, leaving the characteristic dome shape with multiple entry holes.

While the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries remains scientifically skeptical about the use of Reef Balls in its artificial reef program, it purchased 1,000 of them to add to some of its reefs in 2001. Division biologist will monitor the sites in an effort to quantify the cost-to-benefit ratio of producing habitat for fish and bottom life as well as increasing recreational opportunities for anglers and divers NCDMF is monitoring a patch of Reel Balls off the state's central coast it Carteret County and will compare the catch of fish at that location to the catch of fish over more traditional reef type: to rate the effectiveness of each. The agency is not yet committed to the balls, but has taken a definite interest in their design and use.

The Long Bay Reef Association purchased 600 Reef Balls in 2001 and divided them equally among six existing artificial reefs along the southern North Carolina coast. After seeing initial use of the Reef Balls at inshore reefs create dramatic increases in the catch of many fish species the association didn't need any scientific study to tell it the system worked.

The increased catch of flounder at two reefs that were refurbished with Reef Balls near the mouth of the Cape Fear River created such excitement among fishermen that the structures were dubbed "flounder hotels." They began attracting fish immediately, without a lengthy waiting period for pioneer plant species to attach themselves to the concrete structures and in turn attract forage fish and predatory fish.

The largest Reef Ball, the Ultra Ball, weighs as much as 6,000 lbs. Reef Balls are copyrighted works of art on a worldwide basis.


What apparently was happening was that schooling baitfish found the structures and immediately began to use their artificial cavities as sanctuaries, attracting fish higher up the food chain, such as flounder, which waited outside the "windows" for easy meals.


On the beach a couple of miles distant from these reefs, the Long Beach Fishing Pier was being rebuilt in the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd. When word of the success of reef balls got out, the pier owners decided to drive the pier's new pilings right through reef balls to see if they might be as effective near shore. The 64 Reef Balls installed surrounding its new pilings quickly resulted in the catch of eight tripletails, a fish rarely caught in North Carolina waters. But the bigger and most significant news was that the Reef Balls also resulted in a 30 percent increase in the pier's catch of flounder.

The evolution of this product and its application continues.

Our work toward maintaining and enhancing natural habitats remains important, but the future of marine resources may depend also on our ability to supplement existing reefs or to replace habitat where it is permanently lost.

For more information, please contact Reef Ball Development Group online at http://ww