The Artificial Reef Program

by John Koegler

(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association February 2004 Newsletter)

Everyone knows about the striper and fluke stock recoveries.  Another species that had a spectacular recovery is the Black Sea bass. Scientists believe a contributing factor in the Black Sea Bass’s rebuilding is the angler-supported New Jersey artificial reef program.


The sea bottom off New Jersey is mostly sand (99%). Sand provides little protection or food for marine creatures. Artificial reefs are composed of hard materials. Hard materials provide many places for a huge number of marine animals to attach themselves. A key reason for the success of artificial reefs is simple. Fish like to eat. To survive fish go to where food is.  Fish also benefit if there is structure where they can dodge predators and provide protection for their larvae and juveniles. New Jersey’s artificial reefs provide both food and protection for a vast variety of species. There are 14 New Jersey artificial reefs located between Sandy Hook and Cape May.


Artificial reefs are so biologically productive that they are, in effect, an “Ocean Oasis.”

A 1996 study on the Barnegat Light reef site determined that one square meter of artificial reef habitat in a few years became home to 129 pounds of live organisms and animals. In this one square meter of retrieved experimental reef habitat, New Jersey biologists counted 432,022 individual marine organisms. In an area the size of a card table, the reef material provided shelter and food for 118,651 mussels, 29,310 barnacles, 4,626 anemones, 16, 626 worms, 2,349 urchins, 3,545 crabs, 22 lobsters and 133 young fish less than four inches long. This reef sample was covered by encrusting organisms like stone coral, bryozoans, hydroids and sponges that collectively numbered in the hundreds of thousands.


By comparison, a division study collected 60 one square foot samples of sandy sea floor near the Cape May artificial reef. This sandy ocean bottom had 2.5 ounces of marine life per square meter. Based on the above New Jersey report, artificial reefs on an equivalent square meter basis are 825 times more productive than the sandy bottom. Compare 129 pounds of life on a reef sample to 2.5 ounces for one square meter of sand. This study proves beyond doubt that artificial reefs produce marine life and do not just attract it. Reef building clearly supports a wide biomass that aid the recovery of many species. The report is recapped in the New Jersey Fish & Wildlife Digest -2003 Marine Issue- page 5. 


The reef program is supported by angler donations to a tax exempt C-03 program named the “Artificial Reef Association.” This association was created to provide the money needed to pay for the transportation and placement of donated materials at the 14 reef sites. Angler donations and New Jersey Marine division staff have made the artificial reef program a success beyond expectations. In summary, this is the most successful fish and resource rebuilding program that the state of New Jersey has ever created.