Reefs: They're Closer Than You’d Think
The term ‘reef’ usually brings to mind a scene filled with brightly colored fish swimming in schools, popping in and out of the coral in clear, shallow water. Perhaps you’re transported somewhere warm and tropical, where you can snorkel by the reef with ease.
But that’s not the only way to imagine a reef.
Last August, people across the Southeast were surprised when researchers with NOAA’s Ocean Exploration and Research program announced the discovery of a coral reef 160 miles off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. Scientists were out on a dive collecting samples in the research submarine Alvin when they stumbled upon Lophelia pertusa, a white, stony coral thought to only survive in shallow, warm waters. Instead of a shallow, tropical locale, the coral was half a mile below the surface in 48-degree Fahrenheit water, stretching for an estimated 85 miles along the coast. In some spots, the coral piled as high as 300 feet. Other marine life was also spotted, including a mature swordfish.
The importance of the discovery was twofold: the research reminded us that reefs do in fact exist in Southeastern waters, and it showed that corals like Lophelia pertusa may be more resilient than initially thought, and more able to adapt to environmental changes like sea level rise and warming water temperatures.
Coral reefs have been in decline around the world due to factors such as pollution and warming water temperatures. The discovery of a reef in our own backyard offers a sliver of optimism that there is still much to learn about reefs, and that maybe they can adapt to our changing world.
Why do reefs matter anyways?
Reefs offer a multitude of benefits, from combatting erosion of the coast by acting as a storm surge buffer to providing critical spawning and nursing grounds for marine life. Reefs provide habitat to a huge amount of biodiversity and are key to bolstering the fishing economy. The multitude of marine life draws in anglers and divers.
South Carolina’s offshore waters are home to some naturally occurring reefs where rocky outcrops provide a place for sponges, corals and seaweed to grow. But most of the seafloor off the coast of South Carolina is sandy and soft, which is not ideal for reef growth.
SCDNR’s Artificial Reef Program solves this topographical problem by adding man-made hard surfaces for coral to attach to. Since the 1970s, the program’s mission has been to build artificial reefs to increase populations of saltwater fish such as red snapper, black sea bass, gag grouper and king mackerel.
The reefs are constructed using metal and concrete structures – be it a retired tug boat, steel bridge, concrete pipe, old military vehicles or even subway car. The material is cleaned and cleared as environmentally safe before it is sunk in the ocean.
The beauty of using this old scrap material is finding a way to repurpose something that would have been slated for the landfill otherwise. Instead, it becomes the catalyst for a new reef home to marine life ranging from algae and barnacles to large grouper and sharks. By providing fish a place to feed, spawn, and grow up, these reefs act like fish factories, populating the nearby area.