If you build it, will they come? R.I.’s first artificial reef

A crane off Sabin Point begins lowering the first set of reef balls.

It’s been done using decommissioned ships, oil rigs, and even subway cars. Now it’s being done for the first time in Rhode Island.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and RI DEM have teamed up to create the state’s first artificial reef, situated off Sabin Point in Providence. TNC’s communications manager Tim Mooney says the hope is that adding complex structure to the floor of Narragansett Bay will improve recreational fishing and add to the overall presence of sea life in that part of the bay.

To do so, the reef has recently been constructed using a total of 64 cement “reef balls” placed beyond the Sabin Point fishing dock. The balls, three feet high and four in diameter, look a bit like whiffle balls cut in half: the large open end sits on the bottom, and the holes through the rest allow marine life to move in and out of the structure. This will offer smaller fish a place to hide and may attract larger sport fish such as tautog, black sea bass, and scup, each of which tend to favor rocky areas. Mooney says the structure should eventually support a wide variety of life.

“We’re hoping for a ‘halo effect’. It will draw fish that like structure, like tautog and cunner and black sea bass, but we also expect that this activity will encourage algae to grow on it, and eventually develop its own energy. We expect fish like flounder, which might not normally be interested in structure, will be drawn there because of the life found in the area.”

The site is one of a dozen TNC had monitored from May to October over the past several years. The location was chosen because the water quality was adequate enough to support a fish population; the lack of bottom structure; the area is away from the shipping channel; and the fact that there was already an existing public fishing pier. TNC and RIDEM’s Division of Marine Fisheries teamed up to lead the project, and the $47,000 price tag was paid through the federal Sport Fish Restoration Program, with additional funds from TNC and a grant from the RI Saltwater Angler’s Association.

DEM fisheries specialist Pat Barrett said, “We dove the site to inspect the area and to collect data before the reef balls went in. The research has been going on for the past three or four years.” Although it will be several years before the reef is fully established, Barrett says they will be in the water soon, and there may already be a few fish around. “Fish are in the area and may check the reef out almost immediately, once things settle down. We will be down within a short time after placement to do a general assessment of how things went.”

After the initial inspection, DEM divers and scientists will dive on the reef starting in the spring to document the changes that may take place, and to see what’s started growing over the winter. The process will continue regularly. “We will be diving annually at end of summer or the start of fall when there’s an abundance of fish in the water. Comparisons will be made to a naturally rocky site on the other side of the bay in tandem to see whether the reef begins to support the life we’re hoping for. Based on this, we’ll evaluate the success or lack thereof and use that to decide whether to create others.”

“The reef ball design is one that has met success along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts,” said William Helt, coastal restoration scientist with TNC. “We hope there will be success here. Other New England areas have either used different designs or placed these objects in the water for different purposes, but this is the first time this design has been used to provide hard, concrete structure and allow the fish to move in and out of the shelter.”


As the first load of eight reef balls is lowered into the water, TNC scientists are anticipating usage by a variety of fish.

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