While artificial reefs generally enhance local economies, they can have both positive and negative effects on ecosystems
When a structure is intentionally placed on the seafloor as an artificial reef, it can create habitat for a variety of marine life. For this reason, artificial reefs are often popular destinations for divers, snorkelers, and fishermen.
In areas such as the Florida Keys, heavy visitation, particularly by novice or uninformed divers and snorkelers, can take a toll on coral reefs. Research suggests that in some instances, artificial reefs may divert some pressure away from natural reefs while still allowing visitors to enjoy diverse marine life. Because many of these divers, snorkelers, and anglers charter through local businesses, artificial reefs can have a positive impact on local economies. In such an instance, the artificial reef would be considered a ‘win-win’ for the economy and the environment.
In some instances, however, the negative ecological impacts of artificial reefs may outweigh potential economic gains. For example, development of artificial reefs may cause an increase in overall visitation to an area, meaning more visitors to both artificial and natural reefs. Or, if artificial reefs are not carefully planned or constructed, they can actually damage natural habitats. In addition, monitoring observations indicate that many artificial structures are quickly becoming habitat and possibly a spawning source for invasive species such as the orange-cup coral.
In order to ensure that the desired economic benefits of an artificial reef are achieved while maintaining the integrity of natural resources, extensive planning, evaluation, and permitting must occur before any artificial reef can be developed within the boundaries of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Long-term monitoring and research regarding use and ecological impacts of intentionally sunken ships within the sanctuary are important components for future decisions regarding establishment of additional artificial reefs.