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Artificial Reef Shelter or Litter?

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

When a Canadian warship sinks into a watery grave off San Diego later this month, tourism boosters will be firing the next salvo in a battle over whether humans have the right to clutter the floor of the world’s oceans.

The scuttling of the Yukon, a 2,890-ton destroyer that once stalked Soviet submarines, will create an underwater magnet for marine life--and a world-class destination for scuba divers.

The warship is destined to become just one of thousands of artificial reefs off the coast of California, including dozens in Orange County. Unchecked accumulation of artificial reefs off the nation’s shores--from Army tanks to wooden streetcars to piles of asbestos-laden pipe--has sparked fierce debate.

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“Over the years, we’ve learned that fish will congregate around car batteries--that doesn’t make them valuable fisheries habitat,” said Sierra Club coastal programs director Mark Massara.

But even some environmentalists like the reefs, saying they can compensate for human damage to the ocean.

The California Coastal Commission ordered Southern California Edison Co. to pay for a $50-million reef to be built in the fall on 150 acres off Orange and San Diego counties. It’s to replace kelp beds destroyed by churned sand and mud from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

One of the newest, most controversial plans calls for turning tapped-out oil platforms, including the seven off Orange County, into artificial reefs.

Oil executives and other reef-builders say they are enhancing the ocean floor by creating underwater havens.

Critics counter that the ecological and recreational benefits are questionable, and that artificial reefs sully a paradise less mapped than the far side of the moon.

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“The ocean is still a complex and mysterious place,” said Warner Chabot of the Center for Marine Conservation’s San Francisco office. “Until we understand those issues better, we should go slowly.”

Creating an artificial reef is simple enough. Eager for protection from predators, marine life gravitates to any hard structure plunked on the ocean floor. But the nagging, unanswered question is whether such reefs merely pull fish from other parts of the ocean or increase their populations because of safer spawning at the new, protective sites.

Besides creating marine habitats, the reefs can reel in big dollars.

San Diego officials predict the Yukon will be a popular addition to “Wreck Alley,” a cluster of three sunken ships off Mission Beach, and add $3 million annually to the local economy from divers.

Project Yukon chairman Dick Long said the ship-sinking is about more than exploiting underwater mystique for profit.

“Divers will be on it so hot and heavy that it will be a de facto ‘no-take’ zone,” he said, noting that fishing boats must stay 100 yards from divers, and spear guns are not allowed on diving vessels.

Cremated Remains Are Denizens Too

But profits are an undeniable part of the lure. A 1999 Florida State University study found $415 million poured into Florida’s economy each year because of artificial reefs.

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One East Coast company makes “Eternal Reefs,” sinking concrete domes mixed with cremated ashes of departed loved ones. Prices range from $850 to $3,200, depending on whether you are willing to be in a “community reef,” mixed with other people, or want your own.

The earliest known artificial reefs were built from weighted bamboo in the 1700s off Japan, to increase harvests of popular fish such as snapper. The practice remains largely unchanged in many nations today.

In the United States, reefs made of logs and tubs helped increase catches off the East Coast during the 1800s and early 1900s.

In Orange County, a French economist hoping to feed people in impoverished countries has been embroiled in a legal battle because of a reef he built off Newport Beach 12 years ago. Rodolphe Streichenberger built his reef with worn tires, PVC pipe and plastic jugs to create a mussel-breeding habitat. The Coastal Commission ordered Streichenberger in May to tear down what it dismisses as an undersea nuisance, and he is suing to reverse that decision.

Artificial reefs in the United States are also popular sportfishing grounds, so if the sites are merely marine magnets, biologists worry they may be harming entire ecosystems by decreasing fish populations.

Sportfishers say the reefs breed life.

“Anybody who doesn’t believe it should take a look at an artificial reef and the immense amount of marine organisms that live on or adjacent to it,” said Tom Raftican, president of United Anglers of Southern California, a Huntington Beach-based group with 35,000 members. “Fish don’t know whether reefs are artificial or natural.”

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But, at a February hearing on the sinking of the Yukon, Coastal Commissioner Christina Desser lamented, “We’re making an aquarium down there--we may as well put in some sandcastles.”

There’s already a lot more than sandcastles on the ocean floor.

California has 36 state-sanctioned reefs, and there are thousands more accidental and unofficial ones, including more than 1,700 shipwrecks.

When the state began building reefs in 1958, marine biologists used whatever they were given, which explains the wooden streetcars, 12,000 tires and piles of pipe found off Southern California. As they learned more, the state Department of Fish and Game switched to more durable materials, such as concrete rubble, which provides better habitat because it doesn’t rust or rot.

Some Turned Away, Others Compelled

Still, the fish and game officials receive some pretty strange offers. Recently, they turned down radioactive concrete parts from a nuclear lab that’s being mothballed near Simi Valley. “We said thanks, but no thanks,” said Dave Parker, senior biologist in the marine division.

The Coastal Commission has ordered artificial reefs created to make up for environmental destruction. Besides the San Onofre reef, they told Chevron Corp. to pay for a $300,000 reef being built by the Surfrider Foundation off El Segundo. The San Clemente-based environmental group hopes to re-create good surfing waves destroyed by a Chevron jetty, said Christopher J. Evans, executive director.

Surfrider favors limited use of artificial reefs, to make up for the human toll on the ocean, he said.

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Many environmentalists are unwilling to take a strong position on artificial reefs because scientific findings are so limited. Much of the work has been funded by the oil industry, which concedes that it has a vested interest because of the millions of dollars it could save by turning obsolete rigs into artificial reefs.

Dozens of tapped-out rigs have already been turned into artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico off Texas, Louisiana and Florida.

Companies such as Chevron and Aera Energy LLC, a partnership between Mobil and Shell Oil Co., are pushing to turn the old California oil rigs into permanent reefs. State law requires oil companies to remove obsolete rigs, cap underwater wells and return the sea floor to its natural condition.

A bill by state Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado) would allow the rigs to be turned into reefs. The bill would put 30% to 65% of the oil industry’s savings into an endowment fund for marine preservation. Approved by the Senate, it is scheduled to be heard in August by an Assembly committee.

George Steinbach, Chevron’s decommissioning project manager, said a state marine fund could reap $300 million if all of California’s rigs are allowed to remain in place and become artificial preserves.

But even partial supporters of artificial reefs worry that leaving the rigs in place would be dangerous because of the precedent it sets.

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“We’re not convinced that the alleged scientific benefit to habitat is worth the sort of larger social encouragement it gives the oil companies,” said Evans of Surfrider.

But Janelle Zobelein, executive director of California Artificial Reef Enhancement, said, “This bill isn’t about the oil industry. It’s about marine life.” CARE is a nonprofit advocacy group funded by the oil industry along with diving and sportfishing groups.

CARE has funded colorful ads favoring “rigs to reefs,” transmitted live underwater video feeds to legislators and sponsored daylong boat trips to operating oil platforms, where legislators, businesspeople and journalists board two-seat submarines to see the rigs up close.

“There’s a tremendous ecosystem formed at the base of the platforms,” Zobelein said. “To pull that out would just destroy the whole environment that’s come to exist down there.”

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