Artificial Reef--Not Reefer--Mania

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 10/26/2007 04:41:00 PM

The Wall Street Journal has a fine feature on so-called "designer reefs" which have been developed to more closely mimic natural reefs. I believe "biomimicry" is the correct term. In the past, creating artificial reefs involved just throwing random stuff into the sea that more often than not just polluted the environment some more. The video clip above describes the work of Todd Barber's Reef Ball Foundation NGO. Elsewhere in the WSJ article, the for-profit efforts of Eco Reefs and others is also described. While these technologies will by no way turn back the tide on dynamite fishing, agricultural runoff, pollution, global warming, and overfishing, they represent innovative efforts to stem widespread loss and degradation of reefs. For those about to reef, we salute you:
During a recent dive here, Todd Barber hovered above such familiar tropical sights as red sea sponges, iridescent fish and a half-hidden moray eel. But the coral reefs -- hollow, spherical and made entirely from concrete -- were anything but typical.

Mr. Barber wasn't surprised, though. A decade earlier, he created the artificial reefs using 300 concrete "reef balls." Now, those once-bare and ugly spheres have been transformed into minireefs, rich with life.

"They're in pretty good shape," said Mr. Barber after he climbed onto a boat and stripped off his scuba gear. He was particularly pleased by the presence of a Pederson shrimp, a translucent creature with blue flecks making a reef ball its home.

Mr. Barber is leading a charge to build "designer reefs" that will replace or support natural ones as the effects of overfishing, pollutants and disease take a growing toll on these vital ecosystems. His nonprofit Reef Ball Foundation has so far cultivated about 4,000 reefs in 55 countries. Projects range from a mile-long reef in Malaysia to a half-mile one at a millionaire's island in the Caribbean.

Artificial reefs aren't a new idea. For years, fisheries have made faux reefs by dumping junk -- old boats, airplanes, washing machines -- into the sea. But such unscientific efforts can go haywire. In 1972, about two million tires were dumped in the waters near Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., in an attempt to provide a habitat for fish. The tires failed to attract marine life and instead littered the ocean floor. They are now being removed.

The new "designer reefs" are much more sophisticated. EcoReefs Inc., of Jackson, Wyo., sells ceramic structures shaped like branching corals, essentially a prefabricated kit for making a customized reef. A Philippine company molds artificial coral whose shape, texture, color and even chemical signature are much like the real thing. One quixotic scientist tries to spur coral growth by piping low-voltage electricity through large metal mesh placed underwater.

But copying Mother Nature isn't easy. An artificial reef may work in one location but flop elsewhere. Some coral fragments thrive only in shallower waters. Others must be oriented just so or they won't grow. On the Caribbean island of Curacao, a reef-ball team made the mistake of planting corals upright instead of sideways, and they fell off in a big storm. In Oman, which isn't known for hurricanes, a storm earlier this year wiped out some coral growth on reef balls.

Reefs that develop naturally are created from colonies of tiny coral polyps. When these animals die, they leave behind a limestone "skeleton" on which other polyps grow, slowly creating larger and larger structures. These reefs range from the size of a small flower bed to the Great Barrier Reef, a coral edifice that stretches 1,400 miles along the Australian coast.

Sea creatures depend on reefs for shelter and feeding and mating grounds. For humans, they are a rich source of fish and, increasingly, a destination for snorkeling, diving and other recreational activities. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that coral reefs world-wide provide as much as $375 billion of services annually.

But reefs face increasing danger as traditional threats are compounded by the effects of global warming. Higher sea temperatures have weakened or killed a large number of coral reefs through a process known as bleaching. Warmer oceans may also be triggering more frequent intense hurricanes, and a single such storm can trash parts of a 10,000-year-old reef in minutes. In addition, as more carbon dioxide is pumped into the air, more gets dissolved in the oceans -- turning the water more acidic and hurting coral growth.

"About 30% of the world's reefs have been destroyed in my lifetime," says the 43-year-old Mr. Barber. If current conditions continue, as many as 70% of the world's reefs could disappear within 50 years, according to NOAA.