ISSN 1108-8931


Year 6 - Issue 62

Sponsored by: Zante Feast Holidays

Index of Interviews

Todd Barber
Chairman, Reef Ball Foundation
Reef Balls of Fire !

Todd BarberTodd Barber's family has owned a Dive store since 1979 and Todd naturally became an avid Scuba Diver with over 10,000 dives. After a high-flying career in computer and management consultancy with IBM, Alexander Group and Towers, Perrin, Forester & Crosby, consulting the world's top firms, Todd returned to his first love, the "hobby and science" of Marine Reefs, to invent the Reef Ball and implement it in over 3,500 projects in 48 countries. Beyond his many activities relating to artificial reef research, financing and development, Todd has also served for 3 years as the USA's Amusement Industry Manufacturer and Suppliers (AIMS) non-profit trade organization’s Executive Director. He lives in Sarasota, Florida, very close to the water !

Historically artificial reefs have been used by fishermen to increase catches, as far back as 1790s Japan. Is this still the case or is tourism use (snorkelling/diving/ submarine tourism) gaining ground?

Over the last decade, the Reef Ball Foundation has seen an explosion in the number of different goals being achieved by the use of designed artificial reefs. We have conducted over 4,000 project in 48 countries and have identified in excess of 100 different valid goals for building reefs. Although building reefs for fishing enhancement is still a very popular goal, more and more we are seeing goals built for other purposes. Snorkeling, diving and underwater tourism have been dominated by the sinking of ships as artificial reefs and this is still a fairly popular activity, but in the designed artificial reef market we are generally seeing more complex / multi-use goals such as building a snorkeling/diving Reef that also has environmental goals such as coral reef restoration or juvenile fish recruitment. We are also seeing an explosion in advanced engineered Reefs such as snorkeling reefs that also function to stop or reverse beach erosions. Pure mitigation and restoration...with only environmental goals in mind are more common now....we have even built reefs as deep as 800 feet to restore fish spawning grounds.

Educational activities are also a growing area where schools, universities and other groups are building reefs purely for educational value or for conducting research into complex marine ecosystems. Building reefs designed for specific species are also increasing...for example in recent years we have build a large number of reefs to serve as the base for oyster reefs to develop. There are many new "exotic" uses for artificial reefs too...Reef Balls have been used for example for the follow unique goals:

  • To hold water transfer pipes for Geothermal energy generation

  • In shallow water to provide schooling bait fish to feed birds of prey in areas affected by the Arabian (Persian) Gulf oil spills

  • To slow water flows in concrete lined freshwater canals to restore populations of fish that require more natural water flow

  • To host filter feeding animals (oysters, sea squirts, etc.) to improve nearshore water quality under docks and around sea walls

  • As "planters" for Red Mangrove seedlings to restore mangrove forests in areas where wave energy is too high for traditional planting techniques

  • For aquaculture of lobster

  • To serve as a base for planting propagated hard and soft corals.

  • To enhance crabbing under a cold water fishing pier

  • As "Eternal Reefs" which hold the cremated remains of humans or pets as a memorial to lost loved ones

  • As mitigation for ship groundings, dock construction, beach renourishment projects and other disasters.

  • As boat moorings

  • and hundreds of other really creative uses.

Reef Balls before submerging

What was the innovation that your organization brought into artificial reefs and how did it occur to you?

The Reef Ball Foundation began the worldwide trend toward "designed" artificial reefs. Designed reefs is the concept that instead of just throwing materials of opportunity into the water and seeing what happens that we actually first set up specific goals for an artificial reef project and then we design specific artificial reef materials that meet all the goals and criteria of the reef we are to build.

Of course, we also developed a mass of knowledge of techniques for building artificial reefs to meet these goals. Reef Ball Foundation developed, for example, specialized concrete mixes to enhance coral settlement and to create more naturally balanced reefs; we designed structures capable of withstanding hurricanes and lasting over 500 year to make the requirements of hard corals, we developed structures that can be built anywhere in the world on minimal budgets, but mostly we are known for being the world's leading expert on the process of turning goals into designed reefs that work. In over a decade, we have not had any failures whereas failed reef building projects are common place when not using designed processes.

Do your clients share the pro-environment motives of your organization, an NGO, presumably restoring the ecological balance of the seas, or are their motives more business-like, for profit?

We work with all kinds of organizations. Our philosophy has always been to make sure whomever we work with, we help them do things incrementally better...maybe not to the highest standards...but better than they did before...we believe in continual improvement. In the developing world, you can't impose the standards we have in the developed world...we take that into account. When we work with organizations with solely a profit motive, we find ways for them to make more money, while doing it more environmentally... then it is a win/win scenario. Sometimes, our solutions are so much cheaper, that we can even require...and get...additional purely environmental additions to projects that might otherwise have been environmental disasters. We are finding this true especially in our beach restoration technology that involves building a natural fringing coral reef to protect beaches permanently instead of people pumping sand onto beaches every couple of years and destroying the marine environment in the process.

What is the geographical spread of artificial reefs today? Which areas are artificial reefs expanding and why? Any correlation with areas where natural reefs are on the decrease?

We build reef worldwide. Nearly every country in the world with ocean front real estate. There are Reef Balls on all seven continents! (Yes, including Antarctica). Artificial reef development is expanding worldwide mainly due to the development of designed materials which have minimal environmental risks and have proven highly successful at obtaining desired results. We are seeing a rapid decrease in "old style" artificial reefs such as the use of tires, waste materials of opportunity, and other non-durable, unstable or toxic materials that experienced high failure rates.

Unfortunately, where natural reefs are being degraded the fastest (tropical coral reefs) they are not being replaced because the technology to due so (artificial reefs combined with coral propagation and transplanting) has only been proven successful by Reef Ball Foundation over the last few years. In the future, now that this technology had been demonstrated to be environmentally sound and cost effective we expect growth in this area.

There is evidence that artificial reefs can be hazardous to the sea's health. Which materials are more appropriate in your experience and why? How do issues like geography, winds, currents, sea temperature & depth complicate the picture?

Artificial reefs, that are not designed reefs, are very dangerous to the sea's health. Artificial reefs are very powerful management tools, but misused they can be equally powerful in their negative affects. Mindless ship sinking has been a boon for scuba divers and tourism...but from a biological point of view tall ships attract more fish than they produce which can lead to over harvesting, fish that have poor nutrition due to excess competition, spreading of disease and non-natural fouling communities (marine growth on the reef itself) which can lead to out of balance reef systems. Waste disposal programs, disguised as "artificial reef programs" including the wholesale dumping of tires, construction waste, etc. have lead to millions of dollars of documented damages and costs...not to mention biological disruptions. Even today, the US Navy has applied to the EPA for an exemption to environmental laws to allow the sinking of a large aircraft carrier, the USS Oriskany, which contains an estimated 738-1385 lbs of solid PCBs tied up in the estimated 403,600 pounds of electrical cable insulation, running for scores of linear miles throughout all Oriskany deck levels that the Navy deems to costly to remove before sinking. This sinking is scheduled for this fall and will set a precedent for anyone sinking a ship in the future to claim it is okay to leave toxic items on board if it cost to much to remove them!

The Reef Ball Foundation uses very strict guidelines when choosing suitable artificial reef materials. Obviously, toxins should never be allowed to be introduced into the marine environment. We don't even allow the use of iron re-bar in Reef Balls because iron is biologically active any active agents can change a natural reef community and have devastating effects from a biological point of view. In our experience, if the designed reef does not mimic nature in terms of species diversity and population densities (yes, even having more fish than you would see naturally on a reef is bad) is a reef that has been designed poorly. Science is just not to the point where we are smart enough to manipulate the natural balance of life in the marine environment safely...marine ecosystems are just too complex at present to be modeled cleanly so mimicking mother nature is the best tactic. If we were not doing so much damage to our reef habitats, one might even argue that we should not attempt artificial reefs...but the damage is so significant we believe it is our moral obligation to use our best efforts to restore them.

Do you or your customers every worry about any liability issues from creating or operating an artificial reef? What happens say, when a ship meets an artificial reef, that was not there when the navigation chart was printed? Or if a tourist drowns near one?

This is one of the key arguments for using designed artificial reefs. In over 1/2 million Reef Balls deployed worldwide, and over a decade of experience we have never had an issue in regards to liability.....whereas there have been hundreds of lawsuits over non-designed reef systems. If build properly, artificial reefs pose exactly the same risks as natural reefs....if built improperly reefs can cause major liability issues. And in many cases, the public pays.....when a ship sunk starts to leak oil....public agencies end up footing the bill to clean up the mess...or the environment suffers if the mess is not cleaned up.

From a customer point of view, however, there is no concern. Artificial Reefs require permits and upon deployment become "property" of the government and therefore liability is limited.

Would you sell a reefball to anyone, anywhere or do you in some way scrutinize applications so that the reef is in safe, trained hands?

We have a wide range of programs that insure the proper quality and training for the particular project. For example, if you want to buy a "finished" Reef Ball, you can only purchase one from a qualified authorized contractor who had been trained. However, if are doing a project yourself we would supply molds and the training. In some rare cases, we supply molds and training only by email...such as a small school project where part of the goal is the kids learning how to complete tasks on their own without instruction.

We try not to have absolute rules....we give broad discretion to our board of directors to look at each project on a case by case basis to determine the best way to achieve everyone's goals while safeguarding the environment, our clients and our reputation.

Artificial Reef - Artificial Limb? A cynic would say that no matter how good an artificial limb is it can never match the real thing. Similar for reefs? or can nature meet its match?

I guess I am a cynic....I consider our Antigua Project to be one of the best designed artificial reef projects in the world...and as close as it comes to being a natural reef... it is still not perfect. For this reason, one of the major goals of the Reef Ball Foundation is to educate people about the importance of protecting natural is much easier to protect a reef than to re-build one. Don't get me wrong, with appropriate goals, funding and design...we can do a very good job....but only nature can "build" a perfect reef.

Apart from the obvious use for fisheries and tourism, are there any other applications for reefs - for marine biology research purposes? Say installing microcameras? or indeed for security purposes?

Reef Balls have been used for all of the purposes you mentioned above and many more. Security from boat intrusion has been growing since 9/11. For example an Air Force Base has Reef Balls around it for erosion control and is considering larger units to deter boats in an area where boating is banned. Our new attachment adapter system, introduced in 2002, has been popular for attaching scientific instrumentation, corals, oysters, and other underwater devices.

What have been major improvements in artificial reef technology over the last decade? And is someone monitoring environmental impact?

Designed Reefs have been the major improvement in artificial reef technology in the last decade. And we have come along way. Technology that allows the efficient propagation and transplantation of hard and soft corals onto artificial reefs has been a major accomplishment for coral reef restoration. Continued better understanding of complex marine ecosystems has allowed managers to more specifically target ecosystem bottlenecks and critical issues using artificial reefs. Anchoring technologies have become less expensive and more robust allowing modular artificial reefs to be used in the surf and breaking zones to protect beaches. New concrete technologies have allowed for even longer lasting modules with inert properties and with chemistry closely matching seawater pH. But most importantly, our understanding of where to best place artificial reefs, appropriate modular spacing to achieve specific goals, and a host of other detailed technical advancements is where real improvements have occurred.

In terms of monitoring environmental impacts, there are literally hundreds of ongoing scientific experiments on Reef Balls and other aspects of artificial reef technology. Science is continually advancing and nearly all of our project are monitored to feed back data for improving every new reef we build.

Are there any aesthetic or ethical problems with artificial reefs?For example what if we were to plant fire-resistant fiber-glass trees on mountains, after a forest fire? And what about all those who want to bury their loved ones within artificial reefs?

I have always, personally, had a problem with any artificial reef that did not look like a natural reef over has always been our goal to build artificial reefs so that people who see them in the future will only recognize a natural reef. Ships, tires, triangles, and other weird stuff that you hear about people sinking as artificial reefs may have a place for specific goals (like tourism or creating underwater Disney lands) but I think there will always be a debate about if that is really appropriate for a public resource. The Reef Ball Foundation believes that their are ways to address these other goals in a way that is natural looking but it takes time and education. I wish I could teach all divers that to look at a natural reef is the most beautiful thing to dive on, but some will always feel more comfortable diving around man-made structures such a sunken ships.

As far as adding cremated remains to Artificial Reefs, I personally think it is a great idea. Right now, if you go the traditional way to kill a few trees to make your pine box then clear some land to make space, then blow up a mountain to carve out a granite headstone then finally you claim a spot on our scarce land as permanent and unusable for anyone accept a mourner. Go in a reef...and instead you create a habitat for life where new life is constantly being born. I don't see many ethical problems with that.

Can you monitor the success or failure of Reef Balls in terms of restoring biodiversity, and how? How does it compare to other artificial reefs? Any major success stories? Any valuable lessons from errors?

We monitor many aspects of our reefs. In Antigua, for example, we documented 11 species of fish before Reef Balls, and 74 species after Reef Balls (6 months) (we also monitored corals, invertebrates, algae, reptiles (sea turtles) and mammals (dolphins) with similar increases in each category. We also compared these to nearby natural reefs to learn we have come very close to natural species diversity in a matter of 6 months. (It may take years before we get to 100% biodiversity but we are already over 90%). Because Reef Balls are built specifically with species diversity in mind, it is not surprising that Reef Balls generally have higher species diversity than other materials....especially reefs that are not designed. We have learned valuable lessons....we call it "Local Tuning"... with over a decade of experience, we can generally come to a site with our experts and give our clients a plan that will normally achieve 80%+ biodiversity of nearby natural reefs within a year or two. However, getting to 100% takes two more things....time...many reef systems (especially slow growing coral reef systems) take years to reach natural maturity....and "Local Tuning." By local tuning, we need local people to monitor the Reef Balls and nearby natural reefs and determine the difference and make adjustments to the Reef Balls to better mimic natural reefs. For example, if the Reef Balls have too few small fish, we might suggest filling some of the Reef Balls with natural rocks to make the interior more complex and attractive to smaller fish. If we have too few larger fish, we may need to add larger sizes Reef Balls. If corals are lacking, we may need to propagate and transplant some. If we have too many big fish, we may need to add predator exclusion devices. If algae are growing too fast we may need to relocate sea urchins (diadema) to the Reef Balls. Or any of a thousand other treatments we use to adjust the reef balls "locally" to local conditions on the natural reefs. This is the REAL art and science of designed reef building.

How expensive is a reefball? Is there financial support available and by whom?

Reef Balls can be built on any budget from a small scale to a global scale. Reef Balls (purchased from a contractor) range from $40-$350 but built by volunteers they can be even cheaper. The Reef Ball Foundation ( has a very simple and active grant program that can provide reduced cost Reef Ball molds to groups that want to build their own Reef Balls. Sometimes, we go even further and provide molds for free (although we normally require locally matched funds to insure a community investment in the projects). Reef Balls can sometimes be can be the case with submerged breakwater projects to protect beaches where prices can range from $1000+ per deployed Reef Ball since this projects often use huge Reef Balls with advanced anchoring systems and professional engineering. But the bottom line, is that Reef Balls are far less costly than nearly any other artificial reef when one considers longevity and other factors. There really is no excuse to poorly suited artificial reef materials...they really don't save money and often end up costing significantly more especially when all the environmental (and physical) risks that are involved.

How central has the Internet been for your organisation in terms of both enlightening the world, and expanding your business?

Reef Ball Foundation would not exist without the Internet for many many reasons. Let me list just a few:

1) The Reef Ball Foundation, by its non-profit bylaws is not allows to spend money on would people know about us if it were not for the internet?

2) The Reef Ball Foundation is composed of over 100 professionals worldwide...with no more than 3 of us in any one would we communicate and act as a single company without internet communication?

3) The is no single geographic area large enough to support the heavy investment in technological advances for artificial reef building Reef Ball has been able to invest over the last decade...but by having projects worldwide, we are able to cover our costs and do the work. The Internet has allowed us to build reefs in over 48 countries.

4) The Reef Ball Foundation, from its very first day, has used the philosophy of putting EVERYTHING we do on the internet...good and that other can learn from what we do and guide us to do things better and better. If not for input from clients and volunteers around the world, we would never have the combined knowledge we have today for artificial reefs. Without the internet, it is fairly safe to say that we would still be tossing tires in the water and telling everyone what a great reef we are building!

5) As Chairman of the Reef Ball Foundation, I PERSONALLY answer nearly every serious inquiry about artificial reefs by email.....communicating regularly with over 500 people per day. If I had to do that by phone, it would be totally impossible. With the internet, people get real answers from experts....not a sales department slowing filtering out inquiries until they reach the right person.

6) I travel to an average of 3-4 different countries every month....I could not afford my own phone bill if I could not stay in touch by email!

Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

There is SO much to fact...we have over 10,000 pages of information about Reef Balls on our website, and so I will leave it to your intelligent readers to go there and learn more. After they discover many of the really cool stuff we do that I have not even mentioned here such as Red Mangroves restoration, designed materials assistance, educational programs, etc....let each and every one know they can personally for further information on any topic they need further explanation. Thanks for giving me the chance to let your readers know just a little more about our work.

Thank you very much

The Reef Ball Foundation, Inc. is a 501(c) 3 publicly supported non-profit charity that functions as an international environmental NGO. Their mission is to help restore the world's ocean ecosystems and to emphasise and protect natural reef systems through preservation, Reef Ball technology, innovative public education opportunities, and community involvement. Reef Ball work with governments, businesses, schools, research institutes, private individuals and community organizations. They have conducted projects in 48 countries and our projects range from the Boy Scouts of America's High Adventure program in Islamorada, Florida to the government of Sarawak's marine sanctuary for sea turtles in Malaysia to an amazing reef restoration project on Maiden Island, Antigua. Over the last ten years, The Reef Ball Foundation has conducted over 3,500 projects worldwide.

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