3D-printed reefs could mean regenerating not only lost coral, but lost fish due to underwater development.
Coral reefs have been disappearing from the ocean at rapid rates because of human intervention in the last several decades. China’s coral reefs have experienced an 80 percent loss of their reefs in the last 30 years, and in that same time period, Australia has lost 50 percent of its Great Barrier Reef.
The primary threat to these iconic and extremely important ecosystems is coastal and offshore development, which includes activities such as large-scale dredging, infilling, coastal modifications, and the creation of artificial waterways.
Reefs found in the Persian Gulf, near Middle Eastern nations, have also suffered from severe loss and damage as humans continue to develop underwater for consumer purposes. The coral cover off the coast of Bahrain has reached nearly 0 percent.
Though there are solutions to prevent further loss, such as tighter regulation, more research, improved project planning with regards to environmental impact, and better public awareness, there are organizations that are working to repair the damage that has already been done.
Organizations like Reef Arabia design and create artificial reefs to introduce into marine communities to encourage growth and regeneration of fish populations. Their focus is in areas like Bahrain that have been highly overfished, which has left the ecosystem totally unbalanced.
Reef Arabia’s primary project is concrete reefs, and they have released nearly 3,000 concrete Reef Balls and custom-designed reef units near Bahrain. However, the organization teamed up with Sustainable Oceans Internation (SOI) and several designers to create an even better alternative: 3D printed coral reefs.
Instead of concrete, the reefs are printed using sandstone, which is much more akin to the texture of the coral and has a neutral pH surface. David Lennon, a Reef Arabia team member and director of SOI, said,
“With 3D printing, we can get closer to natural design because of its ability to produce very organic shapes and almost lay down material similar to how nature does it.”
Other advantages of using 3D printing are that it’s easier to create unique designs and replicate them more quickly. They can even use a real reef that fish are attracted to as a model to print one identical to it. Since diversity in a habitat encourages more species to take residence in the reef, these advantages are crucial.
Though the project is in its early stages and a census hasn’t been done to determine the results, Lennon said this of the 3D versus concrete reefs:
“I suspect if we did a detailed count we would find the 3D units have a greater number of different types of fish and the crevices created by the knobby lumps will support more cryptic fish, crabs and shrimp which the [concrete] Reef Balls or other units can’t.”
With reefs quickly disappearing and threatening the entire balance of the marine ecosystems, it’s innovative technology such as this that suggests that there’s a way to repair the damage that humans have inflicted.
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