The ability of artificial reefs to increase fish populations has been well-known for centuries. Beginning in the United States in the 1800s, and even earlier in Japan, fishermen have been placing logs and other structures in waterways to increase fish stock. Today, artificial reefs are becoming increasingly popular as a conservation tool, and a recent study by researchers at the Duke University Marine Laboratory and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has indicated their potential to provide refuge for fish altering their geographic range due to climate change.
Artificial reefs are human-made structures that intentionally (or unintentionally) encourage growth of reef-dwelling organisms. The formation of an artificial reef begins first with plants, and then calcifying organisms like barnacles or corals, growing on the structure. Next, small invertebrates and fishes will populate the area, eventually attracting larger predator fish, sharks, and rays. Shipwrecks are the most picturesque artificial structures, and decommissioned ships will often be stripped and sunk to create a reef habitat. However, researchers are also working on developing the most optimal synthetic reef structures to encourage growth.
The previously mentioned study discovered that artificial reef habitats in North Carolina are attracting tropical and subtropical reef fish species. The most fascinating part of this study is that these fish species were not found on the state’s shallow reefs, indicating a preference for deeper, human-made structures rather than the naturally-occurring rocky reefs closer to shore. The reason for this is still a mystery, but NOAA scientist J. Christopher Taylor shared in a press release that “it could be that the zooplankton and smaller fish these species eat are more plentiful on artificial reefs. Or it could be that human-made reefs’ complex structures give the fish more nooks and crannies where they can evade predators.” Jason Daley from the Smithsonian emphasizes the conservation implications that this discovery could have. As ocean temperatures rise, management teams can use this information to determine where to place artificial reefs in order to accommodate tropical fish seeking refuge towards the poles.
Government agencies and non-profit organizations around the world are already harnessing the power of artificial reefs. North Carolina, where this study was conducted, has over 2,000 shipwrecks in its waters and the wrecks are attracting endangered species like sand tiger sharks. The Maritus Marine Conservation Society succinctly outlines the roles artificial reefs can play in ocean conservation. They facilitate:
- “an improvement in the fishermen’s catch from these reef zones,
- a study area for scientists,
- a tourist attraction for divers,
- a rehabilitation of the areas destroyed by natural forces or anthropogenic activities,
- a creation of reproduction zones,
- a beneficial use of solid wastes like old boats, tyres and automobile carcasses etc.”
The numerous benefits of artificial reefs and the continued research of their impacts harbors hope for reef-dwelling critters and their environment.
What other human-made structures provide habitat for wildlife?
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