By US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Global warming puts a tremendous amount of stress on coral reefs. Increased water temperatures and ocean acidification lead to a process called coral bleaching, which ultimately leads to coral death.

Luckily, new technologies now allow scientists to keep a close eye on reef ecosystems. The increased visibility of declining reef health has helped drive both the scientific community and the government toward reef restoration solutions.

Ironically, these new solutions are emerging from what environmentalists originally deemed destructive behavior.

Both the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) agree that man-made structures are a viable solution for restoring reef ecosystems. In fact, a study found that oil drilling rigs in California have a greater abundance of marine life than surrounding ecosystems. Researchers attribute the larger population to the fact that rigs provide a large amount of surface area throughout the water column.

In this article, we’ll look at how the Rigs-to-Reefs Program and modular artificial reefs work to replace and restore struggling reef habitats.

Modular Artificial Reefs

Modular artificial reefs have been evolving for well over twenty years. They’re not repurposed material; they are specifically designed to function as substitute reefs. Testing in the 1980s suggested that these artificial reefs have the potential to revitalize reef ecosystems.

A study published in the Bulletin of Marine Science observed twelve plastic, cone-shaped artificial reef modules placed in the Gulf of Mexico’s Choctawhatchee Bay estuary for a 13-month period. In the study, scientists found that the modules attracted a significant amount of fish from offshore reef communities. They deemed the artificial reefs to be “rapid and successful in terms of the amount of fish biomass.” These positive results have led today’s oceanic communities to push for continued development of modular artificial reefs.

An Australian industrial designer, Alex Goad, recently created what he calls the Modular Artificial Reef Structure (MARS). His design consists of porous ceramic modules that clamp together to form a three-dimensional lattice build. He chose ceramic because it can mimic the calcium skeletons of dead coral, which are the basis of coral reefs.

Goad believes that the modularity of MARS gives it the flexibility to replicate each reef structure on an individual basis. MARS would be used in pieces that would accommodate the requirements of the damaged reef structure.

Once implemented, the system works first by attracting small, bottom-feeding fish. Other organisms will follow, according to the order of the food chain, and coral will begin to attach to the top surface of MARS. The end result is a self-sustaining reef system created around the MARS units. A promising trial in Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay proved that MARS can deliver on its promises.


Rigs-to-Reefs is the name of a program aimed at converting decommissioned offshore oil and petroleum rigs into artificial reef habitats. The initiative was started by the now defunct Minerals Management Service (MMS) and is currently being run by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE).

The idea stems from a variety of studies that determined that standing oil rigs can play a beneficial role in creating new ecosystems.

When oil and petroleum rigs are decommissioned, a certain set of regulatory standards must be followed in order to ensure that the remaining rig structure poses no ecological threat. The rigs are then designated to be used for one of three reefing methods:

  • The tow and place method involves severing the structure from the sea floor and transporting it to an approved location.
  • Partial removal calls for removing only the top portion of the rig. This consists of the above-water construction and part of the submerged sections of the structure. The rest of the rig remains in place.
  • The final method is called toppling. This technique requires explosives to be used to sever the rig from the seafloor, and the entire structure is pushed onto its side and into the sea.

Scientists have found that rigs-to-reefs structures are successful at increasing biodiversity and stimulating new coral growth. Each of the three reefing methods, and even the design of the rig in question, are hypothesized to affect ecosystem development in different ways. There is a consistent increase in the levels of plankton and algae that are present, however, which suggests that all structures play a role in building new food chains.

The commitment of the scientific community to rebuild struggling reef systems is an encouraging sign for those of us who are dedicated to the preservation of coral reefs.

Here at AcroOptics, we do our part to preserve coral by introducing these colorful invertebrates into our homes. If you’d like to grow your own coral colony, contact us. We specialize in providing lighting systems that ensure optimal coral health and appearance.