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Investigating Artificial Reefs

by Nicole Lengyel, Principal Marine Biologist, RIDFW

In 2013, the RI Department of Environmental Management (RI DEM) in cooperation with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) began a five-year experimental artificial reef project to investigate the benefits of artificial reefs in RI. The project is 75% funded through Sportfish Restoration (SFR) funds, and 25% funded by TNC and funds from the RI saltwater recreational fishing license.

The project will use concrete reef balls to create three 0.25 acre experimental artificial reefs in Narragansett Bay. In order to appropriately site the artificial reefs, a TNC site selection model was used to map out suitable and non-suitable areas in Narragansett Bay. The data used in the model included depth, sediment type, dissolved oxygen, benthic fauna, ship track density, and submerged aquatic vegetation. Current DEM surveys, mooring fields, and fishing activity were also taken into consideration during the site selection process. Three potential locations in the Bay were identified and presented to stakeholders for their feedback. Four sites at each of the three potential locations were then surveyed in the field to groundtruth the data used in the site selection model. One of the four sites in each potential location was identified as a primary site and a second alternative site was also chosen should an unanticipated problem arise with the primary site. Permit applications were submitted to the appropriate agencies in early 2014 and are currently under review. Baseline data collection at all three artificial reefs as well as three nearby natural reefs will commence in the summer. Upon approval of project permits, artificial reefs will be constructed and subsequently monitored for the duration of the project period.

Post-construction monitoring to evaluate whether artificial reefs are increasing abundance and biomass of important sportfish species or merely attracting them from other areas in the Bay will be multi-faceted. A side-scan sonar survey will be performed to verify the location, layout and vertical relief of reef materials at each location. Each year from June through September a survey will be conducted at each natural and artificial reef. During each survey divers will conduct a fish census where finfish will be identified and enumerated and live video will be recorded. Fish traps will be used to capture target species for the tag-recapture component of the monitoring. Benthic scrapings will also be collected from reef material to characterize the benthos and monitor succession on the reefs. Recreational anglers will be interviewed to determine the level of fishing activity and thus exploitation rate on the reefs.

At the end of the project period in 2017, researchers will analyze the collected data to determine the benefits of artificial reefs in RI. The data collected from this study will be used to finalize an Artificial Reef Plan for the State of Rhode Island. The plan will not only provide an overview regarding the proper citing and materials to be used in artificial reef construction but will make recommendations for future projects in Narragansett Bay, RI.

GIS credit: Kevin Ruddock, TNC

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