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Underwater museum in Mexico An “underwater museum” in Mexico doubles as an artificial reef. (2011 Jason deCaires Taylor / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London)

Can Art Save the Sea?

When natural reefs are at risk, people come up with strange but often successful replacements

There’s something fishy about a new museum in Cancun, Mexico: Most of the visitors have fins. And though touching the art is frowned upon in other museums, the director of this underwater attraction hopes that sea creatures will make themselves at home.

The more than 400 statues created by Jason deCaires Taylor in the Museo Subacuático de Arte make up an artificial reef—an underwater, human-made structure that supports marine life. People construct artificial reefs to mimic coral reefs—massive limestone structures created over time by tiny sea creatures called corals. According to some estimates, 20 percent of the world’s natural coral reefs have been lost, and 75 percent of remaining reefs are endangered by climate change, pollution, and fishing practices that deplete reef species. Underwater art is only one way people are getting creative in their efforts to help stressed-out reefs.

BIG ATTRACTION

Corals’ hard outer skeletons form the backbone of any reef. Sponges, soft corals, and shellfish are quick to attach to the rigid structures. Fish, crustaceans, and other creatures seek food and shelter in these biodiversity hot spots. “Coral reefs are the most diverse marine ecosystem and are often called the rainforests of the sea,” says Konrad Hughen, a marine geochemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

The concentration of marine life makes reefs prime fishing spots. Researchers are developing medicines from chemicals produced by reef creatures. With so much at stake, people are building a variety of artificial reefs to replace the natural ones that are disappearing. Successful reef materials all have common characteristics, says Jeff Tinsman, an environmental scientist who coordinates Delaware’s artificial-reef program. “They’re all very stable so that they won’t be swept away by currents or tides,” he says. “They [also] have a long life expectancy underwater.”

A RANGE OF REEFS

One purpose of some artificial reefs—such as the Mexican sculptures— is to draw tourism to them instead of to nearby coral reefs, which get damaged when divers touch them. “People can love the reef to death,” says Hughen. “It’s a fragile environment.” In other places, such as the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, artificial reefs replace the many natural coral reefs that have been wiped out. There, scientists brought in Biorock—an artificial reef system that uses an electric current to stimulate the formation of limestone (see How Biorock Works, right). Coral larvae—free swimming baby corals—attach to the limestone and grow. To give the reef a jump start, researchers also attach chunks of live coral.

Along the flat seafloor off the coast of Delaware, fish find few tempting habitats. Reef-building corals can’t survive that far north, so experts created an artificial reef from recycled items, including 1,329 decommissioned New York City subway cars. Marine species moved right in. “That’s sort of like an oasis in the desert,” says Tinsman. “Once fish find that superproductive food source, they tend to concentrate there and not leave.”

Where corals do thrive, they’re quick to call artificial reefs home. “If they get fully colonized by the native corals, then I wouldn’t call them artificial reefs anymore,” says Hughen. “At that point, you’ve created a new reef.”

This article originally appeared in the January 23, 2012 edition of Science World. For more from Science World, click here.

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