A Balancing Act: Understanding Life on Local Reefs | South Carolina Aquarium

A Balancing Act: Understanding Life on Local Reefs

Oct 08

A Balancing Act: Understanding Life on Local Reefs

This year’s first Holland Lifelong Learning lecture focused on a project happening beyond our walls. What does the ocean floor look like 20 miles, 50 miles or 100 miles offshore? To answer that question, the sold-out crowd welcomed South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) Artificial Reef Manager, Robert Martore. Most of the ocean bottom off the coast of South Carolina, is an expansive stretch of shifting sands dotted with naturally occurring limestone and artificial reef clusters.

“Artificial” usually brings to mind negative thoughts, whether you think of additives in your food or something unnatural. However, artificial reefs are man-made structures that provide real solutions. SCDNR sinks “fish condos” or concrete cones offshore. In the ocean, these cones provide the stable substrate that animals, like soft corals, sponges and anemones, need to attach to. The reefs themselves provide shelter for small fish and, in turn, serve as a food source for larger predators.

These reefs also “seed” surrounding fishing grounds. Most fish are broadcast spawners. That means that they disperse their eggs in the water column. Since there are no physical walls or barriers secluding these reef areas, fish are able to grow, reproduce and even spread into different areas. The rebound that black sea bass have made over the past ten years can be attributed to the success of artificial reefs.

“Now you can’t just throw anything into the ocean to serve as an artificial reef,” Robert said with a chuckle. Materials like steel go through a lengthy process before being deployed.

SCDNR has incorporated these reef sites into management programs. Every coastal state has an artificial reef program, but South Carolina is the only state with Marine Protected Areas that include artificial reefs. Marine Protected Areas, formerly known as Marine Reserves, afford habitats extra protection.


The South Carolina Aquarium dive team led by senior biologist, Arnold Postell, is conducting surveys as a part of a two year pilot study. They are measuring the amount and diversity of local fish species utilizing reef habitat. Another objective of this research project is to remove lionfish, an invasive species, and measure the impact that this removal has on fish species like snapper and grouper. Lionfish have no natural predators in the Atlantic Ocean, can live in extreme environments that other fish can’t tolerate, grow and reproduce rapidly and can’t be caught in traps or on fishing line.

“How many of you are SCUBA divers?” Arnold asked.

Over 1/3 of the audience raised their hands. “You can have a direct impact on ocean health by downloading the South Carolina Aquarium app and logging where you encounter lionfish,” said Arnold.

This information is easily accessible and helps spear fishermen to make the most of each trip. Arnold notes that not all lionfish have to be removed before you start to see a difference. The research team has documented fish like tomtate, black sea bass, Atlantic spadefish and even top predators like nurse sharks on these reef sites. This is a sign of a very healthy habitat if it is able to meet the needs of a large predator.

During the fourth season of the Holland Lifelong Learning Series, the South Carolina Aquarium will introduce you to experts in a casual and relaxed atmosphere.

Check out the full series lineup here.

Thank you to our Sponsors: Mary and Mason Holland, The Establishment, Christopher Kauker of Ameriprise Financial Inc, The Snider Family, and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

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