Volume 13, Issue 50 ~ December 15 - December 21, 2005

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Got an Environmental Question? Send it to: EARTH TALK, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. Or submit your question at: www.emagazine.com. Or e-mail us at: [email protected].

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: www.oceanconservancy.org.

• South Carolina Marine Artificial Reef Program: www.dnr.sc.gov/marine/pub/seascience/artreef.html.

• Reef Ball Foundation: www.reefball.org.

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