Out of the desert

Artificial reefs could make Southern California’s seafloor bloom.

Posted on December 07, 2016 by Merit McCrea | TIDE Jan/Feb 2017

Nothing is more stunning than the difference in biodiversity and abundance of marine organisms between the flat featureless seafloor and towering offshore reef and along the Pacific Coast, the contrast is especially stark.

Where the right ingredients come together here, nature's persistent northwesterly winds churn deep sea nutrients into the daylight. Plankton blooms. On every vertical rock surface sea life thrives, competing for a foothold. Fish swarm nearby, foraging in the food-rich waters, usually not far from structure. These rugose reefs offer fish a place to dart behind when pelagic predators loom near, holes to hide in, and a welcome relief from a surging current.

Out on the mud and sand flats, one might see a seafloor dimpled by a few burrowing critters, a flatfish or two suctioned to the bottom, the outlines of a buried sand star, maybe a lone crab. It's nothing like the richness of a rocky reef. In many areas, flat featureless bottom with an occasional section of low lying rock is all there is. Along much the mainland coast of Southern California, in depths between 40 and 200 feet, flatness is the dominant feature by far.



The process to designate Marine Protected Areas in California waters highlighted this reality as work groups were tasked to include representative habitats all along the coast. The battle heated white hot over areas having major natural reefs, so rare were they along the coast. There were areas of low relief rock in the frequently surge-darkened, turbid waters near shore, but finding big tall reefs more than a few hundred yards offshore was rare indeed. In the roughly 40 miles between Pt. Conception and Santa Barbara, only two such natural reef areas existed, and both ended up in no fishing zones.

However, the oil industry had left a legacy of a large shipwreck in 70 feet of water, and series of rubble reefs in 45 feet. These are the sites anglers go to when looking for coastal shallow water reef fish like calico bass now. Along Southern California's coast, such accidental artificial reefs form a large fraction of the coastal fishing spots found in waters between 40 and 120 feet deep. Yet, these are still not all that common, and both anglers and reef critters would benefit greatly with a few more.

In past years, creating artificial reefs was regarded as a good thing – a way to mitigate for lost fishing opportunity and lost marine diversity elsewhere. But starting about 20 years ago, a few of California's most ideological environmental interests began to push back, saying "it's not nature." The State Department of Fish and Wildlife's artificial reef program ground to a standstill, after supporting the creation of more than 100 small reefs, and at least one larger region of reefs.

One such larger area is of special note is Izor's Reefs, or "Izor's," as they are known colloquially. They are officially the Bolsa Chica reefs and they are located in 90 feet of water out on the Huntington Flats. Izor's consists of two patches, roughly a quarter-mile in diameter each, plus a few outlying features. They are the legacy of sport-fishing skipper and Izorline fishing tackle founder Capt. Russ Izor who orchestrated their creation. The reefs are now a mainstay for small boat anglers and half-day boats in the Los Angeles to Newport area.



In recent years California's regulatory hurdles to reef creation have ramped up steadily. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) received roughly $2.5 million to support building artificial reefs to mitigate for the loss of fishing opportunities due to Montrose DDT pollution near Palos Verdes. In 2009, the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program, a federal and state program in charge of the effort, initiated an environmental assessment for the placement of a modest sized artificial reef adjacent to a local public fishing pier, away from the impacted site. By 2013, four years and $800,000 later, they were finalizing the environmental documentation and evaluating the need for additional studies. They had yet to be granted permission to put their first rock into the water.

Nevertheless, California Ships to Reefs was successful in recent years, gaining permission to place several shipwrecks off the San Diego coastline. These ships, the centerpiece being the Canadian destroyer Yukon, are now a top scuba-diving attraction.

In 2010, California passed both a Rigs to Reefs bill and a Ships to Reefs bill. Platform owners have yet to tackle reefing a rig, as none have been slated for decommissioning since the Rigs to Reefs bill became law. As both Texas' and Louisiana's successful artificial reef programs demonstrate, it's the related savings in decommissioning costs which has the potential to fund further artificial reef creation. Here in California, there are some who steadfastly oppose the oil industry saving any cost related to drilling offshore whatsoever, no matter how it impacts the multitude of Mother Nature's marine critters now resident on the rigs. They want the rigs ripped out in their entirety, as agreed to in their original operating permits.

CCA California is on track to help kick-start California's artificial reef program. Executive Director Wayne Kotow and Artificial Reef Workgroup Chair Wendy Tochihara are working with top brass at California's Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, including Marine Habitat Conservation Program Director Becky Ota, and Dr. Craig Schuman, Marine Region Manager. They are planning to convene a state-wide series of artificial reef workshops.

There are many perspectives. One which is quickly gaining support, with the help of CCA California state board member David Bacon, is the State of Alabama's example. Alabama designated specific geographic regions for artificial reefs, where the need and potential benefit was seen as highest. Then, for those areas, Alabama created a streamlined, pragmatic permitting process, along with reef building guidelines.

CCA California is also working with Southern California Edison (SCE), a regional electricity generator. Several years ago, SCE was tasked by the California Coastal Commission (CCC), in part, to build a 150-acre, low-relief reef, and meet specific guidelines. One of these is the maintenance of a 28-ton standing stock of fish, an objective the reef has failed to meet in any year so far. CCA California hopes to garner widespread support for an offshore, high-relief extension of the existing reef, should the CCC require or SCE choose to build an additional reef. Prospects are promising.

As a marine scientist and scientific diver, I have seen first hand the abundance of marine life a simple steel frame placed offshore in California's rich waters can create. The year before I joined the Milton Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara's famed Marine Science Institute, workers surveying just eight of 27 California offshore oil platforms in 2003 found a combined total of 430,000 young-of-year bocaccio rockfish. The baby bocaccio at just those eight platforms represented an astounding 20 percent of the total young of year for this federally listed overfished species, over its entire range. Scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service projected survivors of those 430,000 platform bocaccio would one day ultimately boost the adult population by a percentage point all by themselves.

Such high relief artificial reefs can be stunningly productive and there is no doubt that with tall reefs come fish. If you build it, they will come, and CCA California is committed to building more of these offshore oases for anglers and for our marine resources.

Merit McCrea, a CCA Life Member, is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News, --"the largest weekly fishing and hunting newspaper in the country." A veteran Southern California party-boat captain, he is a marine research scientist with the Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He can be reached at: merit@wonews.com.