Tanks, ships, and concrete- Artificial reefs off our coast

A Moment of Science

“Army tanks, personnel carriers, subway cars”

These are just a few of the numerous man-made objects placed on the sea floor off our coast. Don’t get the wrong impression. This isn’t junk polluting our coastline. In fact, it’s just the opposite. They were placed with the explicit purpose to become thriving areas for sealife- an artifical reef.

Dr. Robert Martone with the South Carolina Department of National Resources heads the artificial reef program- creating hotspots of marine life in an otherwise boring landscape on the sea floor. Most of the sea floor off the southeast coast is just sand with sporadic pockets of rock coming up from the continental shelf. It’s on these rocky outcroppings that our temperate water reefs form- they don’t look or behave like tropical water reefs like you may have seen on tv. 

The problem is… those rocky outcroppings that make the foundation of reef systems in our temperate waters are severely lacking off the southeast coast with only 10-20% of the sea bottom suitable for reef development.

That’s where SC DNR comes in- by adding hard material, whether it’s specially made concrete structures, scuttled ships, or even rubble from the construction of the Ravenel Bridge. Concrete is widely used as it is similar to the natural rock that is found offshore. Steel is also used for its durability. All of this keeps those structures- including those subway cars- out of the landfill.

A deep cleaning and special care is taken to insure no pollutants make it into the water- so don’t try to create your own reef by dumping your old appliances on your next fishing trip.

It doesn’t take long for these objects to become covered in sponges, corals, and algae once at the bottom of the ocean to form the basis of the reef community. Small sea life, such as shrimp and crabs then move in, followed by thousands of juvenile fish- attracted to the shelter and food. It’s easy to see why these locations are prime spots for divers to explore… and for big fish to live or visit. Fishing at these locations is encouraged, just as long as it’s done by hand- no traps allowed.

Funding for creating these habitats comes from fishing licenses and fees those anglers pay- but it all goes right back to providing more areas for sportsmen and women to use and enjoy. This return on investment is quite large- a recent economic survey found that people fishing on artificial reefs generated 83 million dollars annually for coastal communities. DNR also checks on these reefs regularly to see how they are progressing. 


There are now around 50 artificial reef sites off our coast from Hilton Head and past Mrytle Beach. These spots, some located inshore as close as the Pier off of Folly to others offshore over 20 nautical miles off the coast. If you’d like to plan a trip to one of these reefs- marked by buoys, or are just curious about what’s under our waters- you can go to SC DNR’s website to see a map and coordinates of all locations, along with a list of what is placed on each site.

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

Special thanks to Robert Martone and SC DNR for the video provided.

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