A New Kind of Artificial Reef Is Saving Fish

As coral reefs fall victim to climate change, an innovative design for fake ones is attracting scores of marine species.
Fish swim near Western Australia’s first artificial reef. (Photo: Department of Fisheries Western Australia and Recfishwest)
May 14, 2015· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Build it, and they will come.

That’s not just a line from Field of Dreams. It’s also a real lesson coming out of Australia, where an innovative experiment to create artificial reefs has attracted 50 fish species to waters that just a few years ago only saw 12.

Artificial reefs are nothing new, but most previous efforts to build them were extremely low-tech. Government agencies dropped piles of old tires or cement blocks on the ocean floor—or sank old boats and military vessels—in the hope that they would create habitats for fish and other marine life.

The experiment in the state of Western Australia is a bit different. The state’s Department of Fisheries ordered a series of 60 specifically made 10-foot-high hollow cubes with open sides and a series of supports running from each corner toward the center. Placed on the ocean floor in two locations in 2013, the 22,000-pound reinforced concrete cubes have since provided perfect growing surfaces for algae and some corals. Those, in turn, have helped attract fish—dozens of large, commercially valuable species, including pink snapper, silver trevally, and Samson fish. Even rays and schools of small fish have turned up to enjoy the habitat.

Although the main goal of the artificial reefs is to boost commercial fishing and related tourism, they also play an important environmental role in a world where natural reefs are rapidly disappearing. Australia’s fabled Great Barrier Reef has shrunk by 50 percent over the past 30 years.

Climate change, ocean acidification, fertilizer runoff, and other threats could soon cause even more damage. Next month, UNESCO will meet to determine whether the Great Barrier Reef—a World Heritage Site that is worth more than $4 billion a year in tourism alone and that plays host to hundreds of marine species—should be considered in need of international conservation assistance.

A spokesperson for Department of Fisheries Minister Ken Baston called the artificial reefs “a win for the environment and recreational fishers.” He said the goal was “to provide new, accessible, and safe quality fishing locations for recreational boat fishers.”

The department has invested nearly $1.5 million to build the reefs. The majority of the funding came from fishing license fees. It will now spend another $460,000 monitoring the first two test sites over the next five years. The department also plans to create another 772 square miles of artificial reefs farther out to sea, where they will attract other species, such as barramundi and Spanish mackerel.

Other parts of Australia are paying attention to Western Australia’s success. Last week, the state of South Australia proposed its own $2.6 million artificial reef project.