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Do artificial reefs work? Vol 4. Track record

August 27 2009 | Artificial reefs, Jim's Blog,
by Jim

The list of nine things that were supposed to change surfing, but didn't, caught my attention earlier this year. There at the top of the list was "artificial reefs". It made me pause.

I paused because I was surprised that Surfing Magazine was as informed on this subject as they appeared to be. And if they were so up on this subject why were so many other people not up on it? This was a nudge I needed to write this series and explore the various angles around artificial reefs... and ask the very specific question "Do artificial reefs work?"

Before I started this post I went back to Surfing and asked them for a bit more regarding their perspective on artificial reefs...

With this post I am looking at all of the installed surfing reefs on the planet, if I've missed one please let me know in the comments and I'll edit the post. I'm not going to cover all artificial reefs as there are tens of thousands in the world made for fishing and/or diving. I'm going to cover the handful of artificial reefs that were put in place to create or enhance a breaking wave. Past posts looked at the users/surfers perspective, return on investment and the crowd-reduction argument.

Here's my methodology. I'll cover reefs in chronological order based on their creation date, name the location, share some details about it, summarize a few pros and cons, quotations from relevant people. I'll link to sources as much info as possible without turning this post into a list of links. I'll also include grade for each reef, A - F. An "A" goes to a break with waves the majority of the year and F goes to an almost non-existent wave, a wave that breaks five or fewer days per year.

I'm putting a extra bit of effort into this series as I'm seeking to add some transparency to the subject of artificial reefs. It seems as though many people think they have/will deliver one thing and the reality is quite different. Again, I welcome you to comment, disagree or agree... this is about the larger dialog regarding these reefs so we can collectively learn from the past.

I call Burkitts in Bargara "the DIY of artificial reefs" as the total cost is estimated at $5,000 (that's missing a few zeros as current reefs, like the one in Bournemouth, England, are in the $5,000,000 range).

This reef is also a bit odd as it was built in an area that isn't known for swell (although neither is the proposed B
ournemouth, England reef. Here's the Surfline forecast for England, look for Bournemouth).
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The company that built it estimates it "breaks 5 - 10% of the time". I suppose this is good news... it breaks. Another positive for this break is that it was inexpensive.

For the whole area the "mean wave height is below waist height."
Thus even before the reef it was a barely surfable region.

The following statement is from the organization that built the reef. "Bargara is not known for consistent quality waves. Lack of swell is the main issue. The swell window is just too narrow. "
Read my last post which states that the best reef in the world (natural or artificial) doesn't produce swell. A reef works WITH existing swell patterns, it's the two of these things working together that produces a wave.


I'm giving this a D. It's an artificial reef that essentially does not work. Ther
e is no reasonable wave form delivered with any level of consistency. From my perspective, it was built in a region without swell. I know that it's horribly wrong to start dropping stuff into the water where there is no swell (with a hope of the reef on it's own producing waves). This brings me to Cables.

In the late 1990s 10,000 tons of granite were dumped in the water at Cable Station. Some locals say that the granite sunk as... rocks tend to do. Others say the rocks didn't sink.

"Breaks on a large swell". Overall produces more waves than
arguably any other artificial reef on the planet. In fact, Cables ties for the best artificial reef on the planet. One estimate puts that number at 140 "surfable" days per year other estimates call that number grossly overinflated. The reason for the quotes on the word surfable is that many times a high number is thrown out for a number of total days that a wave is surfable... this is very, very different than the number of days that it is actually surfed. You may be able to "see" some kind of wave form, that makes it a surfable day. The number of days that surfers actually paddle out and surf it is much less (in this case "surfers" includes any form of wave riding). Finally, the number of days that a person riding a surfboard is less again (it's easier to ride a boogie board on junky wave than it is a surfboard). This detail should give you a window into the games being played to promote reefs.

All this said, Cables breaks. That by itself is a big deal in the world of artificial reefs. More than that it breaks a notable amount of days... even more relevant than THAT is the fact that people actually ride it on surfboards.

Cost about $2,000,000. Which also makes these among the most expensive waves on the planet.

"While the world's first artificial surfing reef may be less than a raging success, there is little doubt that it will be the benchmark for reefs to come."
Marcus Sanders, Surfline (in 2005)

"Cables works best for about two weeks during winter... Cables Reef was designed to reduce some of the overcrowding on Perth's popular surfing beaches. Strangely enough, on the few days that Cables works, every other break on the coastline is usually performing at its best."
LifeOnPerth (2007)

C-. It breaks in the winter when big swell hits. That said, we're talk
ing about a break that is in the swell window of Antarctic storms. I'd expect a lot of places to break during winter in that swell window. The rocks true impact is debatable (did they sink a little, a lot or not at all?)... it's questionable whether the rocks are even part of the reason the wave is breaking. Still, it's breaking in the winter. Thus the C-.

The original concept was designed on an Atari 1040 ST (circa 1988) computer thus making this among the first computer modeled reefs (the final design was created using more sophisticated computer models, I'm sharing the Atari reference as trivia). The original idea was to tie together and submerge a number of car tires (this is never a good idea, see this story on taking tires OFF a reef to understand the downsides to this idea). In the end one of the reasons pointed to for this reef not working well is that is wasn't built to specifications.

The actual reef construction began in 1999 and, like many/all proposed reefs, served two distinct masters (erosion control and wave generation). This "two master" issue happens because few-to-no cities are going to spend millions to possibly generate a few waves for a small percent of the local population (see ROI post). So, as expected, the "erosion control" aspect of the business case ratcheted up and "improve surfing" became a secondary objective (pdf). The geotextile-bag reef was put in place.

Overall it seems that "the number of surfers at Narrowneck has increased and surf quality has 'improved'." "For an average year, waves break on the re
ef approximately 50% of the time."

The wave don't actually break on the reef but rather inside of the reef. The original design was that the two, long reefs (see below for graphic) would allow people to paddle up the middle and then choose to a peeling right or a left at the top of the reef. That doesn't happen. Instead the two large structures do more of a guiding of the incoming swell causing a wave to break on the inside of the reef.

I just think overall that it was implemented as a buffer to prohibit erosion. I don't think surf quality was an objective but it does break. I don't observe it enough to report on how many days a year it breaks. To me it is another example of getting the job half done. If surf quality was the objective it would have been shallower with a longer finger of artificial reef but that didn't happen and it is what it is. I would like to see council's invest in artificial reef technology that is designed to enhance surf quality as a recreational amenity. Taking population projections for South East Queensland into consideration, the Gold Coast City Council needs to seriously research the potential for creating new surf spots. At present we actually have diminishing surf amenity, so this has to be addressed before major problems manifest themselves in the social fabric. This situation needs attention before the present situation spirals out of control. "
Wayne "Rabbit" Bartholomew

(Check out my earlier post regarding "do artificial reefs lessen crowds?")

C-. This is probably the best artificial reef in the world and truthfully, if you compare this reef with other natural reefs around the world, that's not saying much.

Prattes Reef was completed in 2001 as a result of a mitigation with The Chevron Corporation (they paid to "replace" a wave they destroyed, the wave destroyed was called "Grand Avenue").

The reef was designed primarily by Dave Skelly, was made up of geotextile bags and was not surfable. It is currently being taken out.

The cost to put this reef in is estimated at $500K. The cost to take the reef out (it is in the process of being taken out) is probably equal to the $500K to put it in. In my opinion the key lesson with Prattes Reef is that money and engineering don't necessarily produce a wave. A second lesson is that if you let the budget be the definer of the reef (i.e. we have a few hundred thousand to design, construct and install the reef... you will most probably design a reef that is too small to be effective... this is what happened at Pratte's).

For a sense of scale, look at the image to the right (from a Surfline piece on this reef written by an employee of ASR, the company behind many of the other reefs being discussed).

It's clear. Not enough money was budgeted to even give the reef a chance at success.

When you start talking about creating structures in the ocean...
things rarely work out as planned. Of all the reefs on this list I'd suggest that Prattes Reef is an unmitigated disaster. A wave was lost when Chevron altered the beach, money was spent trying to "make good" on that loss. When someone says "oh, we'll make you a better wave than the one we'll take out"... run away.

Although Pratte’s reef never produced surf, it did set an important precedent that surfing areas are coastal resources that need to be protected in California. Other waves have benefited from the loss of surf in El Segundo.

Didn't produce waves. Expensive to put in, expensive to take out.

“File this under, yet another example of hubris in coastal engineering leading to unfortunate results. Adequate pre-project monitoring would have revealed that $500,000 was not nearly enough to build a reef that would be even close to large enough to influence wave breaking in El Segundo.”
Chad Nelsen, Environmental Director, Surfrider Foundation
F. Even with some key learnings about what works and doesn't work this particular project... failed.

The construction on this artificial reef was started over four years ago... which begs the question... "how long does it take to build an artificial reef?"

Here's the Mount Reef webcam. look for yourself... after four years of tinkering there is nothing special h

The other large prod I felt when thinking about this series came
from the blog post titled "The truth about the Mount Reef", I encourage you to read that post as it brilliantly seeks to draw conclusions on this reef by quoting the local sponsored surf gurus.

PROS.< br />Wait... there has to be one here somewhere... I just can't think of one. Leave a positive comment about this reef in the comments section. Oh, and please tell us if you are employed by ASR who is the company being paid to put this reef in. One positive is that body boarders have surfed this wave when it breaks (which is very rarely). It's essentially unsurfable on surfboards, don't take my word for it... read what a bevy of local pros say.

Cost over a million (so far, remember... it's not done) with very little to show for it. An estimated few days of surf per year. ASR, the company t
hat has spent the last four years building this reef, said in 4/08 that it was "70% complete." After four years, it's not complete. This, of course, points to the inexact-science of putting a reef in, the trial-and-error cycles inherent in this long of an installation and... money. Money enough to keep investing in it until it's deemed "complete."

"Never surfed because it when it has broken it’s not surfable"
- Matt Hewitt, NZ National Champ Open Mens 2009

"I would say during that 6 month period there would have been maybe 2 or 3 days that guys were actually riding it on surfboards."
- Hamish Mathieson, NZ local

D. This is one of those that should probably be an F but at least there is a visible sign of ongoing effort to make it work. That said, when can we officially call this "complete"? When the locals reference 2 or 3 days of waves with people riding surfboards... that's very, very close to not being there at all. When the local champ calls it "unsurfable" we can go ahead and label it a failure. The only reason it's not an F is that while the locals have declared it a failure, they haven't discussed taking it out... which will be quite expensive.

Cost to date: $1 million.

I hesitate to even talk about this reef as it's "not complete." That said... $1,000,000 has been spent on it. Four years have passed... and it's not done. ASR is five years in on Mt Reef and four years in on Opunake... this suggests artificial reef implementation may be something closer to a decade (and as we know, time is money).

This is the inverse situation of Bargara mentioned above as this area is within a consistent swell window. "Opunake Beach in Taranaki is an exposed beach break that has quite consistent surf." Which begs the question, why put an artificial reef in an area with an already strong, natural proclivity for consistent surf. It's not like we're talking about an area with Huntington Beach crowds...

Future "potential" for another ridable wave in an area known to be riddled with ridable waves. It's that word "potential" that hooks local councils... potential is a very squishy and very subjective word. This references back to a point made in my opening post on this series... there are very, very few quantitative statistics on any of these reefs. How many days have surfers, on surfboards, ridden these reefs?

Money. If you're at the top of a mountain and see 20 solid options to go down the mountain... what is that 21st option worth to you? Answer: Not much. This is what the locals seem to be saying on internet forums as quoted below. Adding one more wave to a region with breaks all over the place doesn't add much value. Can you create a reef that makes a wave break? Sure, waves are breaking all over the place already. If you put an artificial reef in JBay South Africa (which shares a similar swell window coming from Antacrtic swells), it'll break.

One has to ask why the 'local community' in Opunake are nuts enough to have gone for it, theres more reefs down that way than you can shake a stick at including one of the Nakis finest right handers 5 mins away. The justification seems to be tourist bucks, once again whos going to drive past some of the finest real (and reeling) reefs in NZ to get to a sandbag one...its just bizarre."
- Mr Statik



Artificial surfing reefs have been around for over 12 years and have yet to deliver on the promise.

We've now seen different types of construction, different swell-window locations... and none have risen to anything that's close to being on the radar of locals, surfing media or the surfing population as a whole. That's what the Surfing Magazine list summarized by saying "the number one thing that was supposed to change surfing, but didn't, is artificial reefs."

Yet more info:
P ost 1: Surfer feedback
Post 2: Return on investment
Surfer Mag interview with Chad Nelsen, Surfrider's Environmental Director
Narrowneck, Seven years of monitoring

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