October 12, 2021
Artificial Reefs: A Double-Edged Sword for Marine Managers in the Arabian Gulf
Around the world, we are seeing coastal and marine ecosystems become increasingly degraded due to population-related pressures, including coastal development, pollution, and climate change. To add to these pressures, humanity has also been exploiting marine resources at an ever-increasing pace, and many commercial fisheries stocks are now heavily overfished. Meanwhile, destructive fishing practices such as trawling have flattened seabeds. In response to these changes to our coastal habitats, policy-makers and marine managers are increasingly looking for means to offset some of these impacts, and their attention is increasingly turning to artificial reefs.
Artificial reefs have been used for centuries in the Gulf region, with reefs made from palm tree trunks constructed in hidden locations near coastal villages. These secret fishing spots were carefully managed under the ‘senat al-bahar,’ the code of the sea, and were handed down from generation to generation through family lines. Today, however, the scale of artificial reef development is tremendous compared with its historical roots, and in many cases, these programs may be exacerbating some of the issues they were set up to resolve.
Proponents of artificial reefs will point to the many perceived benefits that they provide. Artificial reefs are rapidly colonized by fishes and other marine organisms and develop communities with diversity and abundance comparable to natural habitats. Because they are often built in relatively featureless sandy or muddy areas, they attract numerous species and organisms seeking food, shelter, or breeding habitats. Artificial reefs can also be a boon for humanity, providing countless recreational and ecotourism opportunities and, furthermore, can be placed in areas surrounding critical habitats to prevent damage from trawling, anchoring, and other activities.
While these benefits do exist, there do not come without risks. While artificial reefs attracting fishes might be perceived as a benefit, it, in fact, makes them particularly vulnerable to overfishing because it concentrates fishes from a wide area into one space, making it easier and less expensive for fishers to catch them. This can quickly result in overexploitation, leading to a collapse of stocks. Furthermore, while artificial reefs develop diverse and abundant communities of marine organisms, these communities are quite distinct from those in natural ecosystems, with different species dominating the assemblages. As such, artificial reefs cannot be considered as surrogates for natural reefs and be justifiably used as a compensation or mitigation response for impacts to natural habitats from coastal development or related activities. Unfortunately, in many cases, artificial reef programs can be considered a form of ‘greenwashing,’ where the public is spun a story of environmental benefits to mask high ecological costs. Many artificial reef programs are nothing more than thinly-veiled attempts at reducing costs from waste disposal (e.g., rigs-to-reefs or boat scuttling), and there are numerous examples of such structures breaking up and damaging surrounding ecosystems after storms, particularly after they have aged underwater for several years.
In our recent policy paper published by the Al Qasimi Foundation, my colleagues and I provided a series of recommendations for policy-makers and marine managers to take into account when considering the adoption of artificial reef programs, but what can the general public do to ensure we have a more sustainable future for our coastal environments? We can learn to appreciate and make ourselves more aware of the unique mosaic of interconnected and interacting ecosystems we have along the coastlines of the Arabian Gulf. These mangrove forests, seagrass beds, coral reefs, and other ecosystems are by far the most productive and diverse ecosystems in the region. It is our responsibility to protect them and to lobby our local NGOs and other grass-roots movements to promote environmental stewardship.
Artificial reef programs may be part of a portfolio of initiatives that support this agenda, but only if they are carefully planned and designed in a manner that avoids some inherent risks in their development. Rather than focusing our attention on engineering solutions after their demise through programs like artificial reef development, we should focus the attention, time, and finances that would have otherwise have gone to such programs on the preservation and restoration of these majestic natural habitats instead.
John Burt is an Associate Professor of Biology at New York University Abu Dhabi, where he has lived for over a decade. He has published over 100 scholarly articles and book chapters on Arabian marine ecology and conservation.