Artificial reefs are a whole lot more prevalent than they once were. Yet are they a good thing? I’ve dived numerous artificial sites in the last 18 months in various stages of development, but each dive raised new questions in my mind. Clearly the aim of each initiative is to have a positive effect on the marine environment but the costs of some of these ventures are huge. Would these funds not be better served to help mitigate the environmental pollution which is contributing to the decline of the oceans reefs? Some of the tropical locations that we dive were uninhabited before the rise of tourism. The growth has been so rapid that it has outstripped the speed in which these, sometimes tiny, areas can cope with the waste created by the visitors. The plastic bottle problem on its own is enormous. If each dive centre invested a relatively tiny amount in water refill stations this would surely have a greater impact on the environment than what some say is just dumping more rubbish into the ocean. Quite an inflammatory point of view but it’s hard to know what is right.
When researching this article I came across many contradictory opinions regarding artificial reefs and environmental concerns. One dive centre told me that they had started using paper cups and plates and throwing them away rather than washing up, citing the chemicals used in washing detergents as being more harmful than the paper waste created. I have been told that plastic (PVC piping) is harmful in an underwater environment. On the other hand, I was told that its limited use in the creation of reef structures is fine particularly when seen relative to raw sewage or the runoff created by unregulated building. So what does that mean? That it’s okay to use whatever you like as long as there is something worse? Exposed metal is not good when creating a reef structure but conversely scuttling a metal boat to have a wreck to dive is acceptable? Concrete is either the closest man-made structure to reef structure or it’s the most harmful thing to put underwater, depending on who you talk to! It’s a difficult subject to adjudicate given that the proof of the pudding is always in the eating and it will be years before we see just what was right.
At the moment, many of these reef structures are just too new so it’s difficult to say what’s working and what the impact truly is. If we look back, there have been some horrific mistakes made. Osborne Reef in Florida would be the one that jumps to my mind. In the 1970s bundles of tires were placed underwater with the idea of generating an artificial fishing reef. Some 2 million tyres were deposited over a 36 acre site around 20m underwater and lying just over 2km off the coast. Seen in quite a cynical light this solved a land based cosmetic problem. Unfortunately tires aren’t the ideal material to promote reef growth and the bindings used to secure them weren’t suitable for the underwater world. Whatever did manage to grow or move into the new environment was dislodged as the bindings corroded. Thousands and thousands of tires broke loose which littered the beaches, caused shipping hazards and created an environmental disaster larger than the aesthetic problem of just leaving them where they were. The scale of the clean up job in both magnitude and cost was immense. Clearly the initial aim of the project was good but history is littered with many such examples of man interfering with nature, with good meaning but getting it wrong.
More recently, close to a million pounds was spent on a project that sunk Douglas aircraft and Sikorsky helicopters off the coast of Phuket in Thailand. I dived there not long after the craft went down. The visibility was not so good and local divers told me that it very rarely was. This was confounded by more local operators and residents alike who voiced fears that the site chosen was not the best in terms of conditions. Ironically such conditions had hampered the project’s progress and unsurprisingly less than a year after its completion, it disappeared. Strong currents and monsoon storms were blamed but these sound like scapegoats for poor planning. It’s interesting to note that Phuket’s plastic bag waste is close to 10,000 tonnes a year. Surely greater positive environmental impact would’ve been achieved by using the reef budget to tackle this problem.
One of my favourite artificial reef sites is Junkyard, Koh Tao. It is a shoestring project, relying on volunteer’s time and using materials that would’ve otherwise been thrown away. Thought has been given to structures suitability both in terms of their impact and the potential for attracting growth and life. I like it because of the varied life there, but also its development. Over the months, I have seen great change in the marine life and in the growth of life that is taking place too. The team ‘garden’ the site by planting broken coral and monitoring its growth. The site is used by dive schools too, so in essence the creation of this dive site also lessens impact on other sites. A visit to this site by novice divers ensures that their education is rounded by the inclusion of an environmental message too.
There are several artificial reefs in the waters surrounding Koh Tao, yet many locals would be surprised to learn this. Weirdly, this seems to be quite typical of artificial reefs in general. Go to Bali and dive the infamous Liberty Wreck, a monster artificial reef in its own right, and you will not be told than an artificial reef shaped like an early aircraft lies just down the beach. Wrecks notwithstanding, this is the most developed artificial reef I have seen. Life swarmed both around it and on it too, and while relatively small, it pleasantly broke up the search for macro critters in the dark coloured sand of Tulamben. Artificial reefs should provide new habitats and in turn new dive sites which will lower the impact on other existing sites. This won’t happen if divers don’t know they exist.
Then there are the issues regarding the regulation of artificial reef projects. Who’s to stop anyone making a structure that resembles their logo or brand and dropping them at popular dive sites? Won’t happen? It’s already happening! I have dived passed two such structures already and while they weren’t large corporations, what’s to stop it heading this way? Can you imagine what would happen if a cola company or two got in on the act?
I don’t mean to sound negative, after all wrecks are my favourite dive sites and what are these if not artificial reefs? Where I think the problem lies is the effective use of money designated for environmental projects, yet this isn’t something that most of us can have an impact on. We can lower our impact on the dive regions that we visit though by visiting artificial reefs where we have the opportunity. Many areas have regular clean-ups, so try to plan your visit so that you can lend a hand. Refuse plastic bags and put you purchases straight into you rucksack, handbag or cloth shopping bag. Refill water bottles and when absorbing the local night life take your drinks without straws. And above all, choose to dive with a centre that shares your concerns for mitigating their environmental impact. If everyone observed these simple suggestions we’d make a positive impact on our environment and be well on the way to preserving our underwater paradise!