09-SEP-2020 - A new study compared the effectiveness of three popular artificial reefs to increase fish densities around Saba and St Eustatius. The researchers found that a complex internal structure, that provides more shelter availability, resulted in increased fish abundance, biomass and species richness. The results of this study were used to design an even better working artificial reef.
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The new artificial reef design, the Moreef, is now being tested on Saba.

Coral reefs within the Caribbean have been slowly degrading since the 1970s. Initially this degradation was due to diseases that wiped out most of the black sea urchin (Diadema antillarum), the most important herbivore, and Acropora, the most important reef building corals. Combined with additional threats such as hurricanes, increased seawater temperatures and human-led pollution, coral cover around the islands of Saba and St Eustatius has decreased to less than ten percent.

An artificial reef is a human-made underwater structure, typically built to locally increase biodiversity and productivity. Artificial reefs are gaining popularity as a way to provide increased substrate for coral recruitment and shelter, and provide foraging areas and nursery grounds for fish and other reef creatures. Although there are many artificial reef designs, little research has been done to compare the effectiveness of different designs.

Researchers from University of Applied Sciences Van Hall Larenstein, Wageningen Marine Research, Wageningen University, the Caribbean Netherlands Science Institute, STENAPA, the Saba Conservation Foundation and Golden Rock Dive Centre worked together in the AROSSTA (Artificial Reefs on Saba and Statia) project, in which the fish abundance, biomass (weight) and species richness of three different artificial reefs were compared.

Moreef modules can be stacked, creating a large more complex artificial reef

The study

The three designs were selected based on their popularity and availability within the Caribbean. The Reef Ball® artificial reef has become increasingly popular, with over 600,000 units deployed worldwide. This reef is made of concrete and has a domed shape with many holes, allowing fish to enter and exit the reef easily. The second design is the layered cake artificial reef. This reef has the same outer shape as the reef ball, but includes multiple layers on the inside, providing a more complex habitat for fish. The final design was constructed with local basaltic rock, which was used to create a pile with the same dimensions as three reef balls or layered cakes.

Beginning in May 2017, four locations were selected around Saba and Sint Eustatius. At each location, four different treatments were tested (reef balls, layered cakes, a rock pile and a control consisting of bare sand). On each plot, ten fish surveys were performed: eleven months after deployments and four months after restoration from damage caused by hurricanes Maria and Irma. After the hurricanes, all of the artificial reefs were at least partially buried in the sand and required human intervention to be cleared out.

Researchers counting coral recruits on a reef ball

The results

This project provides important insight into the effectiveness of artificial reefs. In general, all three reef designs demonstrated an increase in fish abundance compared to areas with bare sand. In total, 2102 fish from 48 different species were seen in and around the artificial reefs. Interestingly, the popular reefs ball design was not the most effective way to increase the fish abundance. Instead, this study showed that layered cakes, that provide higher complexity and shelter availability, are much more effective and harbored four times more fish (both in numbers and in biomass). This study also demonstrated that more economical solutions, such as rock piles, can be effective and up to ten times cheaper to construct. However, it should be noted that this style of artificial reef is less stable and could be more easily destroyed in high energy waves or hurricanes.

Rock hind (grouper) hiding within the layers of a layered cake reef

Lessons learned

The devastating impacts of hurricanes Irma and Maria that hit Saba and St. Eustatius over the course of this study really highlighted the need for artificial reefs that are weather-proof and resilient in high energy situations. Placing artificial reefs in sandy areas leaves them vulnerable to being smothered or sinking, therefore, careful site selection and monitoring is required if these reefs are to be a long-term solution. Artificial reefs with complex internal structures and a high shelter availability should be selected over simpler designs to optimize fish assemblages.

Using the lessons learned from this study, the researchers worked together with Wortel Product Design and developed a new type of artificial reef, the Moreef (Modular Restoration Reef). The Moreef has all the advantages of the three different artificial reef designs tested in AROSSTA, while all disadvantages were removed. The Moreef design is now being produced and tested on Saba and will hopefully set a new standard in artificial reef design.

Caribbean coral reefs are under unprecedented pressures and will require various levels of human intervention to reverse current trends of reef degradation. Artificial reefs can provide a variety of benefits beyond improving local fish populations, such as coastal protection and creating new dive sites, taking some of the pressure off natural reefs. Studies such as these provide crucial insights into artificial reef functioning and will help to guide the development of artificial reef designs in the future.

For more information, you can find the full article here, or follow the project here.

You can contact project leader Alwin Hylkema for more information.

Text: Alwin Hylkema, HVHL and Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance
Photos: Kevin Elies (lead photo: deploying Moreef modules); Alwin Hylkema

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