Photo courtesy of New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Coordinating artificial reefs program in NYS, PEF member works to improve marine habitats


Photo courtesy of New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Much of the ocean floor is barren and largely devoid of habitats, making it difficult for organisms and marine life to thrive.

To support and enhance life near New York shorelines, the New York State Artificial Reef Program, managed by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), developed 12 artificial reef sites — two in Long Island Sound, two in Great South Bay and eight in the Atlantic Ocean, on the south shore of Long Island.

Building artificial reefs

Created in 1962, the program uses the “patch reef” method to enhance and expand natural habitats on the ocean floor, said PEF member and Marine Biologist Chris LaPorta. Placing different material on each site provides a variety of habitats for marine life and increases species diversity.

Photo courtesy of New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

That material can be anything from old rail cars, steel vessels, pieces of bridges, and a wide range of other recycled materials one may not expect to be purposely dropped to the ocean floor.

LaPorta, who graduated from Southampton College at Long Island University with a degree in marine biology, has been a PEF member since he joined the DEC in 1988. He has coordinated the artificial reef program for the last 20 years.

“Creating artificial reefs is a unique way to recycle materials of opportunity, primarily clean steel, concrete and rock,” LaPorta said. “After materials are prepared according to New York State and national guidelines, they are deployed on permanent reef sites. They become usable habitat for marine organisms.”

The ocean floor off the coast of New York is primarily flat with a sand or silt bottom. Artificial reefs create a biologically diverse area, which provides food, shelter and breeding grounds for a range of marine organisms. Over time, hard structures on the reefs are covered with algae, mussels, barnacles, sponges, anemones, hydroids, temperate corals, and other types of encrusting organisms, according to the DEC website.

“When properly prepared, those materials are stable and durable and will provide long-term, stationary habitats for marine organisms to attach to or live off,” LaPorta said. “They also have a greater profile off the sea bottom, meaning natural oceanic processes won’t bury them over time.”

Reef managers carefully consider where to place recycled materials within the reef system, LaPorta said.

“We put materials down in discreet, focused areas on the reef sites,” he said. “We leave natural bottom between those pieces so species can venture out and forage those areas. We use a wide variety of materials that become available: steel, rock, and concrete. Those materials can be in the form of vessels, barges, concrete from bridge demolition, and rock from dredging projects. With reef building, you want to vary materials. Certain species prefer lower profile, as opposed to something that comes off the sea floor 20 or 30 feet.”

LaPorta said the largest vessel he was involved with deploying  is a 167-foot steel vessel on Moriches Reef. The DEC would consider something considerably larger if the opportunity arose.

In addition to enhancing marine habitats, the artificial reefs also benefit fishing and diving. Mature reefs will resemble natural reefs and support many species of fish and crustaceans.

Safe for the seas

Photo courtesy of New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

LaPorta said there is no need to be concerned about fuels or contaminants coming off materials such as rail cars and ships.

“All reef-building materials are inspected,” he said. “They are prepared by the removal of any potential pollutants before they can be used and put in the water. All substances that don’t meet our standards need to be removed before deployment. If that can’t be done, or that’s not cost effective, the materials are not used.”

The DEC collaborates with the U.S. Coast Guard to conduct vessel inspections and DEC is the only entity in New York permitted to deploy materials on the reefs.

Over the years since the program began, the DEC has fine-tuned its procedures and guidelines.

“In the past, many decades ago, materials like tires and vehicles were used,” he said. “Those proved not to be good reef-building materials. They were not stable and durable.”

The agency also regularly monitors the reefs.

“We now have an ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) to go down and check what we have on the bottom and how it’s functioning,” LaPorta said. “We will deploy divers when we can and there are other surveys we can do.”

The future of reef building

The DEC is in the process of applying for new reef permits and looking to expand existing sites that have reached their capacity.

“We are looking to expand seven in particular,” LaPorta said. “We are also looking to create four new sites. The governor wants to double the acreage of the New York State reef program areas.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched the third year of his planned expansion of the reefs on Sept. 16 with deployment of a rail car (the first of a 75-car donation to DEC by Wells Fargo Rail Corporation) and the 70-foot steel tugboat, “Jane” on Hempstead Reef. Fifteen more rail cars and a steel turbine are set to be dropped on Hempstead Reef as part of the first phase of this year’s deployment.

In 2018 and 2019, materials deployed on Hempstead Reef were provided by NYSDOT, NYPA/Canal Corporation, NY Thruway Authority, New York City DOT, and the Tutor-Perini Corporation. They  included 4.5 million pounds of material from the old Mill Basin Drawbridge; Tappan Zee Bridge materials; two decommissioned Erie Canal vessels, 115 and 75 feet respectively; and two NYPA turbine runners, totaling 140 tons.

Those who are interested in donating materials are welcome to contact the DEC.

“We are always open for any suggestions,” LaPorta said. “Our materials come from a variety of sources. We are usually contacted by marine contractors or individuals that might have vessels or barges to donate. Sometimes private entities are looking to donate or companies involved in construction or demolition.”

LaPorta said the DEC received donations from the Army Corps of Engineers after dredging in New York harbor and the U.S. Coast Guard plans to donate some of its buoy sinkers in the future.

To contact program staff, email vog.y1627857492n.ced1627857492@sfee1627857492rlaic1627857492ifitr1627857492a1627857492. New York divers can also get involved by becoming volunteer reef observers. Learn more here.