Artificial Reefs: The Solution to Coral Bleaching?

Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Rebecca Parsons
Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Rebecca Parsons

Artificial Reefs: The Solution to Coral Bleaching?

Words and photos by Rebecca Parsons

The bright, vibrant colors of corals have attracted divers and snorkelers for centuries. The color is not the coral itself, but instead is the result of a symbiotic algae that lives within its cells. When under stress, corals expel the algae, causing them to bleach and turn white.  Corals are highly sensitive and bleaching events occur as a result of elevated temperatures, intense sunlight, changes in salinity, disease, or pollution.

So what does this mean for the state of coral reefs?

Let’s look at a couple examples. 90 percent of the coral is suffering from bleaching. Reefs in Hawaii and across the Caribbean have experienced massive bleaching in recent times events as well.

Coral bleaching is occurring across the globe including the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Rebecca Parsons
Coral bleaching is occurring across the globe, including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Rebecca Parsons

Coral reefs make up approximately one percent of Earth’s ocean ecosystems, but serve as a home for 25 percent of marine species. As global temperatures continue to rise, bleaching events are expected to occur more frequently.

As corals continue to die, so too will the many species that call the reefs their home. Additionally, biodiversity will decrease, fishing industries will suffer, and favorite surf spots could be lost forever. So where do we go from here? Is there a way to undo the damage we’ve done or must we come up with an alternative solution?

Cue artificial reefs.

Artificial reefs are man-made structures that are designed to mimic some of the characteristics of natural reef, typically built in areas with featureless bottoms. Whether intentional or not, shipwrecks serve as the most common type of artificial reef. Additionally, oil platforms, bridges, lighthouses, and other offshore structures serve as artificial reefs. These manmade reefs are also being constructed from rocks, cinder blocks, wood, old tires, steel, and concrete.

Could old shipwrecks hold the key to fixing coral bleaching? Photo: Rebecca Parsons
Could old shipwrecks hold the key to fixing coral bleaching? Photo: Rebecca Parsons

Artificial reefs are effective in that they draw in many marine species and create a habitat for them. As a result, they attract many snorkelers and divers, doing wonders for their neighboring local economies and potentially eliminating some of the stress on nearby natural reefs. However if the reefs attract more visitors, both natural and artificial reefs could suffer from the heavy traffic. Additionally, if artificial reefs are not carefully and thoughtfully planned and constructed, they can damage the natural habitat.

As far as artificial surf reefs go, the reactions have been mixed. Some have been successful at halting coastal erosion, improving local ecology, and providing an alternative wave to ease the crowd at popular surf spots. Contrarily, many have been massive failures. For instance, the Osborne Reef in Ft. Lauderdale, a reef along the French Riviera and a reef in Boscombe, England are all examples of failed reefs that were deemed a colossal waste of money.

Whether or not artificial reefs do more harm than good is still up for debate. Will the future hold the construction of more artificial reefs or will we be tearing down more failed reef projects? Who knows? What we do know is that conservation is of the upmost importance and we should work to protect the reefs we do have left. It’s easier to prevent a problem than to solve one.

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The article was originally published on Standup Paddling

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