Existing shipwrecks, sinking oilrigs, and deploying rubble are all ways to create artificial reefs designed with approved materials for algae growth. In turn the algae attracts sea life such as barnacles, corals, and oysters creating new scuba diving hot spots and angler destinations. Marine life is drawn to these underwater habitats because they provide shelter and food.
Coral reefs tend to occur in tropical climates and do not exist in the water above the southern tip of Florida. Therefore to increase sea life and recreational opportunities in U.S. coastal waters, man-made reefs are created remaining productive for one to five hundred years.
Artificial reef projects began in the 1950s gaining considerable attention in the 1980s. The second largest artificial reef was created recently in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The intentionally sunk 521-foot-long General Hoyt S Vandenberg, a World War II vessel, now rests under 137 feet of water in the dubbed “Florida Keys Shipwreck Trek”, an area stretching from Key Largo to Key West. Sinking preparations took months because of inspections. Workers removed contaminants such as millions of feet of wire, potential cancer-causing substances, materials containing mercury, and gallons of paint chips. The ship took about three minutes to fully deploy to the ocean floor. The entire project costs the state of Florida about $8.6 million, an expense paid for with annual tourism-related revenue mostly from divers.
Florida Keys Community College also uses the artificial reef as an underwater classroom for research. The Florida waters are home to more than 1,500 artificial reefs. These structures provide food from the algae growth and divert attention from real reefs in hopes of lessening external damage from the public that may take hundreds of years to undo.
There are other issues such as overfishing that these man-made structures are believed to address. However, some experts say artificial reefs do not replenish but rather redistribute fish populations because the fish most likely to benefit from these structures are the ones that actually reproduce at reef locations. The daily fishing pressures of real reefs has lessened because of these new sites, but that does not necessarily imply an increase in fish populations. Many commercially desired fish do not spawn at reefs.
The EPA controls artificial reef regulations. The EPA works with federal government divisions to ensure the delivery, placement, ownership and liability, and materials all meet standards. Permits for these types of structures are required. Many people sink strings of old tires and cars in hopes of creating a fishing haven. The 38-mile Alabama coastline has become the site of so many artificial reefs that it has actually altered the marine community. As popularity and the number of artificial reefs continue to increase, the debate continues as to whether science can accurately recreate natural ecosystems.