Beneath the cold waters of the BC coast, life has been sustained on the glass sponge and coral reefs for thousands of years. Known only to exist in the Georgia Strait, the Hecate Strait, Howe Sound, Chatham Sound, and Alaska, these organisms play significant roles in ecosystems. They provide protection for marine life, regulate carbon levels, and manage bacteria populations through amazing filtering mechanisms. As a fun fact, the nine glass sponge reefs in Howe Sound can filter enough water to fill almost seven thousand Olympic swimming pools every day.
However, while these reefs have stood the test of time, they are under threat from rising ocean temperatures and human activity such as commercial fishing. All this damage to the reefs means habitat loss for the countless species that rely on them. But there is hope.
Through this article, I want to bring awareness to the promise of artificial reefs, an emerging approach towards restoring and protecting marine habitats. I focus on the work being done by the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia (ARSBC). This Vancouver non-profit repurposes decommissioned vessels into these artificial structures, designed to support marine life. To learn more about these efforts, I did some research and contacted Howard Robins, President and CEO of the ARSBC.
Benefits of reefing vessels rather than scrapping them
One significant benefit is that it’s sustainable. “First off, there are no designated scrap yards for large vessels on the West Coast,” Howard explains. “So right off the bat, you reduce emissions and the cost of transportation by disposing [of] it in a closer location. [And] there’s no need to scrap it down to the last bit of steel. That again reduces emissions, labour, and resources.”
Additionally, Howard says that one artificial reef can add anywhere from one to three million dollars to the economy. Among the sectors standing to benefit is tourism: locally, recreational diving has a thriving community and these alluring sunken-ship reefs are attractive destinations. This appeal creates demand for equipment, tours, accommodations, and accompanying activities tourists enjoy, resulting in more jobs and revenue. But of course, as Howard says, “the economic benefits are directly related to how much effort is put into promoting [an artificial reef] as a dive destination.”
So, what’s the process for forming artificial reefs?
“We aren’t just a bunch of adrenaline junkies in dry suits all hyped up about sinking ships,” Howard clarifies. “Our first priority is to recycle and repurpose vessels to support marine life.”
First, the ARSBC receives a request or proposes reefing as a solution for problem vessels. If the vessel seems like a good candidate for reefing, then a recognized independent environmental inspector will examine the vessel and prepare a report. The purpose of this report is to determine whether the vessel has the potential to meet environmental standards. If the ship can be made to meet standards, the work begins.
To prepare the vessel, materials and machinery are removed to be recycled until only the main structures are left. In this process, confined spaces are opened or sealed with all hazardous obstacles removed. As artificial reefs are also intended for divers to explore, holes are cut to provide access points. This makes it possible for divers to appreciate the exterior of the reefs and explore the inside. Then, any remaining environmental hazards are scrubbed or scraped away.
Once the vessel is prepared, it must be inspected again to ensure that it meets federal guidelines. If it passes, it will be granted permission to sink. Howard says, “In my opinion, the fact that we’ve gone through the rigorous approval process nine times and never been denied a sinking permit is strong evidence of our commitment to our work.”
The vessels are now ready to sink. Most vessels take only a matter of minutes to hit the ocean floor. With the help of engineers and demolition specialists, charges are strategically set to ensure that the ship will go down fast and remain perfectly upright.
Over time, as the current flows over and through the vessel, a diatom mat will form on the surfaces. This is a fine coating of growth composed of algae, larvae, and tiny colonies essential to the developing ecosystem. It attracts limpets, snails, chitons, and other species in search of food, and these, in turn, become food sources for fish, octopuses, and other creatures. Often, even sponges and soft coral will migrate onto these structures, allowing the ecosystem to flourish. And there you have it—an artificial reef.
Future efforts to support the welfare of coastal marine life and how you can help
So far, the ARSBC has completed nine artificial reef projects along the BC coast. The future of the organization looks bright with ongoing and new ventures like introducing a model helicopter onto an existing artificial reef and conducting a biodiversity study.
As a non-profit, the ARSBC does rely on donations, grants, and funding to undertake these projects. So, to support their work, learn more about their future projects, bring awareness to their initiatives, and consider donating.
You might be wondering why it’s important to invest in coastal initiatives like the ARSBC. Our reefs are the barriers that protect our coast from storms and erosion. They also help supply the food we eat and enhance the lives we live. In my opinion, investing in coastal initiatives, whether it be time or money, is an investment in our future.
Note: Various pages from the Artificial Reef Society of BC website (https://artificialreefsocietybc.ca/index.html) were used to inform this piece.
“Artificial Reef Society of BC.” Artificial Reef Society of BC. Accessed April 21, 2023. https://artificialreefsocietybc.ca/index.html.
Baker, Rochelle. “The future of a rare cold-water coral garden on the B.C. coast is still on the line.” Times Colonist, January 22, 2023. https://www.timescolonist.com/islander/the-future-of-a-rare-cold-water-coral-garden-on-the-bc-coast-is-still-on-the-line-6417319.
Cole, Brandon. “What It’s like to Dive British Columbia’s Unique Glass Sponge Reefs.” Scuba Diving, June 7, 2020. https://www.scubadiving.com/what-its-like-to-dive-british-columbias-unique-glass-sponge-reefs.
“Coral Reefs and Climate Change.” IUCN, November 2017. https://www.iucn.org/sites/default/files/2022-04/coral_reefs_and_climate_change_issues_brief_final.pdf.
“Glass Sponge Aggregations in Howe Sound: Locations, Reef Status, and Ecological Significance Assessment,” May 2018. https://waves-vagues.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/library-bibliotheque/40714767.pdf.
Helgason, Nicole. “Scientists Discover ‘Coraltropolis’ in the Cold Waters of British Columbia.” Reef Builders, August 7, 2019. https://reefbuilders.com/2019/08/07/coraltropolis-british-columbia/.
“How do coral reefs protect lives and property?” NOAA National Ocean Service. Accessed April 21, 2023. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/coral_protect.html/.
“HMCS Annapolis can be sunk to make artificial reef, federal court rules.” CBC News, March 12, 2015. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/hmcs-annapolis-can-be-sunk-to-make-artificial-reef-federal-court-rules-1.2992357.
“HMCS Annapolis sunk off B.C. coast to create artificial reef.” CTV News, April 4, 2015. https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/hmcs-annapolis-sunk-off-b-c-coast-to-create-artificial-reef-1.2312141.
John, Bridget, and Fiona Beaty. “Scuba Diving in Átl’ka7tsem/ Howe Sound.” August 2020. https://howesoundguide.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Scuba-Diving-in-Howe-Sound-survey.pdf.
Kane, Laura. “HMCS Annapolis warship could sink accidentally off Gambier Island if not towed, says lawyer.” CBC News, February 26, 2015. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/hmcs-annapolis-warship-could-sink-accidentally-off-gambier-island-if-not-towed-says-lawyer-1.2973690.
Laborel, Jacques L. “Bioherms and Biostromes.” Encyclopedia of Modern Coral Reefs, 2011, 156–58. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-90-481-2639-2_187.
Lee, Jeff. “Belief in Reefs: Canadian Crew Sinks Everything into Creating …” Vancouver Sun, July 31, 2016. https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/belief-in-reefs-canadian-crew-sinks-everything-into-creating-underwater-playgrounds/.
“Protecting BC’s Unique Glass Sponge Reefs.” Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society British Columbia Chapter. Accessed April 21, 2023. https://cpawsbc.org/glass-sponge-reefs/.
Trumpener, Betsy, and Carolina de Ryk. “Ancient Glass Sponge Reef Discovered off B.C. Coast.” CBC News, April 2, 2016. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/lng-crew-discovers-rare-prehistoric-glass-sponge-reef-1.3514548.
Wall, R. A. (Rick). “Annapolis – Warship to Reef.” Artificial Reef Society of BC, December 31, 2014. https://artificialreefsocietybc.ca/uploads/6/9/3/9/69390363/warship_to_reef_article_rw.pdf.