Reef Revival

Local reef advocate John Burke weighs in on how artificial reefs benefit our waters, marine life, and anglers

An artificial reef in Martin County. Photo by Don North
An artificial reef in Martin County. Photo by Don North

Out at sea, sinking ships are a sailor’s nightmare. But in the fight against climate change, overfishing, and pollution, sinking ships may be exactly what the ocean needs. 

Made from submerged vessels, artificial reefs help promote the growth of coral reef organisms, providing essentials like shelter and food to more than 249 fish species observed in Martin County’s offshore reefs. It’s a plus for the environment to be sure, and it helps anglers and divers too. “Reefs are vitally important,” says John Burke, president of the Martin County Anglers Club’s (MCAC) Artificial Reef Fund. “I got involved [with the reef fund] because I’m a fisherman. Predator fish that anglers wanted to catch were bypassing Martin County, swimming farther south to where the reefs are. We put in artificial reefs as a way of getting the fish back.” 

Artificial reefs provide shelter, food, and the necessary elements for a productive ocean. Photo by Don North
Artificial reefs provide shelter, food, and the necessary elements for a productive ocean. Photo by Don North

The MCAC Artificial Reef Fund uses steel vessels, clean building materials, and concrete modules to create artificial reefs. Since its launch in 2003, the group has deployed 13 artificial reefs offshore in Martin County and three in St. Lucie County. Many reefs supported by the organization are located in the Atlantic Ocean near the St. Lucie Inlet. Two examples include the Donaldson Artificial Reef site, which is submerged in 40 to 70 feet of water to support easily accessible dives and bottom-fishing, and the South County Artificial Reef Site, designed to enhance demersal fish populations not usually accessible to anglers at other artificial reef areas.

“Destruction from global warming is happening to our natural reefs right offshore,” says Burke, noting how the waters have become decimated by dirty water that comes down from the Okeechobee Waterway. “Light cannot get through cruddy water. When reefs don’t get the sunshine they need, they die off. It’s a huge threat because reefs are essential to the ecosystem.”

Like natural reefs, artificial reefs are crucial to the health of the ocean as they provide fish and other organisms with shelter, food, a place to reproduce, and a home to raise their young. Without reefs, marine species are at a higher risk for extinction. Says Burke: “We need to get people behind the effort to restore these reefs.”

What You Can Do

4 ways you can help protect our reefs and other marine life

Avoid touching reefs or anchoring your boat on reefs. Reefs can be physically damaged by anchors or snorkelers and divers who do not maintain distance.

Use reef-friendly sunscreen without toxic ingredients such as oxybenzone, which are deadly to corals. Instead, opt for brands such as All Good Reef Friendly Sport Sunscreen Spray or Supergoop! Play Everyday Lotion. Chemicals washed off in the shower can make their way to the ocean, so choosing a smart body wash and shampoo can make a difference.

Reduce the use of plastics, which often find their way into the ocean and degrade into particles that are ingested by marine creatures including corals. And always dispose of trash responsibly.

Minimize the use of fertilizers and herbicides (or better yet, eliminate them altogether). These chemicals can also end up in the ocean and cause lasting damage to marine life.

*Tips courtesy of coastal engineer Kathy Fitzpatrick, who works with the Martin County Artificial Reef Program

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