San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Artificial reefs: like pulperías with real pulpos

Long ago, lost in the mists of time, the first artificial reef was created. That first captain who sank the first boat made the first artificial reef. Fish, divers and things that eat fish have been hanging out on artificial reefs ever since.

Shawn Larkin

Shawn Larkin

Under the waves of Costa Rica lie many manmade things. The ones that last and contain a rough surface grow marine life like algae and corals. Fish come to eat and hide from being eaten amid the structure. Voilà: an artificial reef.

My first experience with a Costa Rican artificial reef was at my favorite place to eat back in the ’80s. Restaurante Las Olas in the Caribbean port city of Limón was built on big concrete pillars, over tide pools on flat days and breaking surf on days with swell. You could sit and chow lobster while you watched live lobster living in the reef below. The manmade pillars were full of coral and sponges and surrounded by schools of fish. Although this was before the tourism boom, the place was always packed.

Sadly, Las Olas was destroyed by the Limón earthquake of 1991 and never reopened. But you can still find artificial reefs in Costa Rica. Several were built by the government and the southern Caribbean community of Manzanillo back in the early ’90s. Pretty much just a bunch of big cinder blocks assembled underwater, these reefs still produce fish and lobster today. Locals do not like to give away their location, because catching lobster from these reefs is crazy easy.

High school students from Paquera on the Nicoya Peninsula built and placed more than 90 reefs in their highly degraded Pacific waters. The reefs have been there close to 10 years and have more marine life than ever, and new students are learning about the development of marine ecosystems. Project Condofish built a reef at Playa Hermosa in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, after local fishermen pointed out all the extra fish at a local shipwreck (TT, June 25, 2010); now, the project takes divers there to watch the fish move in. Costa Rica Oyster Farm builds and places reefs that quickly fill up with oysters. And the Reef Ball Foundation claims to have placed more than 500,000 monitored and productive reefs around the world.

Artificial reefs are placed near live reefs in sandy or muddy areas with no structure. So some of the extremely plentiful sandy-bottom ecosystem is replaced with the more productive reef ecosystems. And why not?

For thousands of years, around the world, people have created structure underwater where none existed before. A small structure is kind of like a seafood pulpería (corner store) – except these pulperías really have pulpos (octopus). A big artificial reef is like your favorite supermarket, stocked with more things than you want, need or know what to do with.

Mother Nature knows just what to do with artificial reefs: stock them full. No distribution or middlemen required. Just sit back and watch. And eat fish.

Divers sure know what to do with artificial reefs: dive them, have fun and make money. There is so much fun and money in artificial reefs that nations like the United States are fond of carefully sinking old cleaned ships for divers to see and fishers to fish. Around the world, thousands of deliberate artificial dive reefs generate marine life, jobs and food. The Barco Hundido (Sunken Ship) dive site inside the no-take zone of Caño Island Biological Reserve, off Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast, is one of the best big-fish dive sites in the world. 

But wait; there’s more. If you design and build your reef just so, a perfect A-frame surfing wave is created over the structure when there is swell. An A-frame wave breaks in the shape of an A with surf lines going left and right. The underwater triangle shape of the reef also ensures a big hollow barrel in the middle of the breaking wave, something surfers drool over.

It seems obvious that artificial reefs are a good thing. Shallow reefs with perfect surfing waves overhead and deep reefs in great spots for divers are what I’d like to see. Others are more concerned with things like endless oysters.

Whether for the endless summer or endless oysters, it is time for Costa Rica to embrace some artificial ingredients and make even more artificial reefs.

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