It all began when the tourism boards of a few east-coast states received some discarded cars from New York City’s Transit Authority. These cars were stripped of their doors, windows, wheels, and interiors, loaded onto a barge, slowly moved to a suitable spot and shoved one by one into the water by a crane.
Once settled, on the ocean floor, they act as protective coves or reefs encouraging marine life to habituate and grow. Since pollution and extensive fishing have been steadily eroding the flora and fauna on the ocean floor, vast areas that were once a safe haven for fish lie barren, like underwater wastelands. The structure and material of a subway car allows aquatic life to safely return to their former nesting and breeding grounds.
The Artificial Reef Project started in 1985 under the direction of The National Fishing Enhancement Act and the Secretary of Commerce. The plan promotes and facilitates responsible, effective artificial reef use based on the best scientific information available. An artificial reef is any structure constructed or placed in ocean waters to enhance fishery resources for commercial and recreational fishing opportunities. The founders gave guidance on various aspects of artificial reef use, including types of construction materials, planning, siting, designing and managing the progress of the reef. They reviewed available information sources and discussed research identified at the time. Other issues, such as liability and mitigation were also introduced. Their goal was to get groups of knowledgeable individuals from federal, state, and local universities and private sector entities to periodically revise and update the general information in more detail for their specific situations. http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/PartnershipsCommunications/NARPwCover3.pdf
Concrete, airplanes, boats, oil and gas platforms, and now subway cars are some of the materials used for artificial reef structures.
In 1990, five stripped subway car bodies were placed on a New Jersey reef at a depth of 65 feet. One year later, diver surveys indicated that these cars were still providing a three dimensional structure for reef development even though a center section of some of the cars had collapsed. It wasn’t clear if the damage was due to deterioration over time or from the initial impact when dumped.
In 2001, the NYCTA offered 1300 obsolete subway cars to states wanting material for their artificial reef programs. These cars (9 tons, 9’X9.4’X51.5′) were composed of sheet steel .07″ thick with a small amount of (non-friable) asbestos between two layers of the walls. The asbestos was found in small enough quantities and was bound to (non-friable) solid matrix providing no mechanism for detrimental effects to the marine environment. The Philadelphia office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) were satisfied with its safety. Both NY and Philadelphia regions of the EPA provided guidance on the issue.
In 2003, 517 cars were deployed in 85 feet of water on one Delaware site. The cars now support an assemblage of invertebrates along with dense populations of sea bass and tautog, a favorite NYC table fish with dry white flesh and a delicate flavor. Delaware signed an agreement for 400 cars that was later amended to 1100. Water testing for asbestos concentrations showed levels similar to background levels in seawater and within the EPA’s drinking water standard.
In the last decade, South Carolina has deployed 200 NYCTA subway cars on reef sites ranging from 90-120 feet deep. After only three months, divers found a diverse array of fish species inhabiting the structures. Virginia has 150 cars and Georgia has 50 nestled on their ocean floors. The Ocean City Maryland Reef Foundation, however rejected subway cars based on negative public perceptions of asbestos and Florida declined subways cars because the sheet metal does not meet state standards for durability.
The Artificial Reef Materials Guidelines state:
- Subway cars, though made of relatively thin gauge steel, are engineered for strength and are much more structurally complex than railroad boxcars.
- Subway cars have a projected lifespan of 25 to 30 years.
- Subway cars have shown to be fully functional as artificial habitat, offering trophic support to reef fish by supporting invertebrate communities.
- Subway cars have considerable vertical relief and surface area and are available in large numbers.
- Subway cars require little or no cost to artificial reef programs because the NYCTA cleans and delivers them on site.
- Concerns associated with these artificial reefs are; depth of deployment so that boats can safely pass over, competition between scuba divers and fishermen, attracting over fishing to known reef locations, specific types of marine species these structures attract are not diverse enough, and strong hurricanes can move or destroy the structures which can damage existing reefs.
- The materials guidelines offers a cool chart documenting storms and associated changes to various structures. A once successful site in Florida, made from millions of tires are now painstakingly being removed because a hurricane tossed them around and caused extensive damage to local reefs. http://myfwc.com/media/131591/ArtificialReefMaterialsGuidelines.pdf
How You Can Help:
- This issue seems counter intuitive and yet it works. Let’s hope time bares this out and that using our largest waste for reefs is the right reason. If you have concerns, your local Departments of Fishing, Departments of Tourism and Departments of Commerce can give you more information.
- The unintentional 75% increase of fish, off Louisiana shores, was a direct result of oil and gas platform bases turning into artificial reefs. Results like this have most environmental agencies and fishermen supporting the practice.
- Start scuba diving! Wreck dives were the origin of artificial reef success. http://www.scubadiving.com/travel/florida-florida-keys/12-wrecks-you-should-dive