Australian Artificial Reef Shows Promise

Australia has gotten some bad press recently, particularly in regard to the recent shark cullings in Western Australia, launched as a “solution” to a series of attacks on surfers in the region. The policy caused outrage among environmentalists and divers (including this one), as well as a large segment of the Australian population. Several organizations have been quite vocal in their criticism of this practice, and rightfully so.

However, there is some good news on the environmental front from Australia as well. Also in Western Australia, a project launched in 2013 sought to increase the fish population by creating a series of artificial reefs along the coastline. After the first two years, the results are very promising, with the number of fish species quadrupling.

Within the new reef system, more than 50 different finfish species have been identified, up from only a dozen in the area two years ago. This remarkable development shows the positive effect artificial reefs can have on a struggling ecosystem. It can also serve as a strong argument against local governments around the world that may be hesitant to initiate artificial reef projects, often on the grounds that they might “harm the local environment” (without further specifying how this might happen).

The reefs themselves are simply made up of a series of concrete structures that have been submerged. Unlike the Biorock reef products, which are more complex and include wire mesh, electrified with a low-power current to stimulate coral growth, the reef system here relied entirely on natural processes. This is particularly good news because it demonstrates that communities and local governments can improve marine-wildlife habitats with very simple, and inexpensive, means. Many of the places in the world that have been hit the hardest by overfishing, dynamite fishing and natural disasters are among some of the most impoverished areas in the world, making high-cost solutions unlikely, if not impossible. But a system such as the one used in Western Australia can be created with a relatively limited budget, putting it within the reach of many communities and environmental organizations.

The ultimate purpose of the Western Australia reef project is to support local businesses that depend on the local fish populations, such as angling charters and boating companies. Private, individual fishing licenses have been suspended for some time now, but the recent positive development means that the local government is open to the idea of issuing them in the near future. Fish populations will be monitored closely, though, to ensure that the project stays on its current, positive trajectory.

Of course, promise of artificial reefs should never replace the need to protect natural reefs, be it from destructive fishing methods, careless anchoring, or global warming and ocean acidification. But artificial reefs can help recreate fish populations in areas that have already been hit, and can stimulate wildlife populations in areas lacking underwater habitats.

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