A Brief History of the UK Artificial Reef Scene




Firstly I shall introduce myself: my name is Alex Maeger and I am a coastal engineer. I studied artificial surfing reefs for my university dissertation and am now active in the UK artificial reef scene. I have written this paper following a brief period of research on the broader field of multifunctional artificial reefs and do not claim that all I state in this document is perfectly true. This document should however give a somewhat accurate review of the current UK artificial reef scene.



The UK Artificial Reef Scene


The topic of artificial reefs can be broken down into three main areas: 1, coastal defence; 2, biological enhancement; and 3, recreational enhancement.


1,          there are presently no reefs, or submerged breakwaters as they are also known, being used as forms of coastal defence along the coastline of the UK. The closest we have to reefs in the UK are water piercing rubble-mound breakwaters that are submerged only at spring high water but these are far from being true reefs.


Water piercing breakwaters have been the preferred form of offshore defence by companies whom have tendered for work in the UK until now. There are several examples of breakwaters being used at present with varying degrees of success. An oceanographer from one of the major UK coastal engineering consultant said, when asked to comment on the issue of submerged breakwaters, “we need proof that they work as a form of coastal defence from someone other than the only company in the world that design them”. At present ASR Ltd. (ASR), of New Zealand, are the world leaders in the market of multifunctional artificial reefs. The feeling conveyed by this employee was that they, as a company, would like to design reefs but unfortunately they do not have enough information to do so.


2,          a better-recognized scene has been established for reefs being used for biological enhancement. Such reefs are easier to design because they are usually located in water with less wave-induced forces. They are placed to encourage marine life in both volume and diversity. A leading figure in this field is Dr Antony Jensen who is a lecturer at the Southampton Oceanography Centre and is also the coordinator of European Artificial Reef Research Network (EARRN). Dr Jensen, and an associate, has pioneered the use of waste materials for the construction of artificial reefs for biological enhancement. There have been two such reefs constructed in Poole Harbour, England, one made from tyres and the other made from concrete with a pulverised fuel ash additive. These reefs have been monitored over a period of time to check whether any toxins have leached in to the water and are showing encouraging results.


The Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) has established another project in Lock Linnhe, Scotland. This development consists of six or more different clusters of concrete blocks and is being used to research many different aspects of biological enhancement. The latest progress report from this project indicates that, although the water is cold and murky, the reef is showing promising signs of biological enhancement.


Reef Balls are a very popular method of encouraging marine biology in other countries with many examples of their success in Florida, USA, and the Caribbean. Reef Balls have also been used in the UK but in numbers far less than those used in the USA. There is a project where some reef balls have been installed in a London Canal and also in an aquarium somewhere in England. Dr Jensen has also done some tests on reef balls but this is about the sum total of work done on reef balls. There is a report that some rouge reef balls have been deployed without permission at a location in Scotland but this story cannot be verified.


There is also a proposal that decommissioned oil rigs in the North Sea be used to generate an artificial habitat for marine wildlife. This technique has been used successfully in the USA to both enhance marine life and create a diving amenity. There are, however, a few problems with implementing the idea in the UK: a, fishermen have been promised they can fish the rigs once they are decommissioned; and b, the North Sea does not have a great recreational appeal to divers and hence any project would be strictly limited to biological enhancement.


3,          the artificial surfing reef scene in the UK has been led by the crusader David Weight. The idea of manufacturing reefs for surfing purposes came to him after he realised that the Dorset coastline would be a perfect setting to use reefs for coastal defence; not only are long stretches of beach littered with groynes but there is also a small tidal range. Both these factors lend themselves perfectly to reefs.


David first put pen to paper in 1993 in response to a television programme that highlighted the problem faced when disposing of tyres. Although there was no positive response from this lead it turned out to be the first step on a path that has led the UK into a position where there are now plans for two artificial surfing reefs.


David then decided to write to the Bournemouth Council engineers since Bournemouth is probably the best place for a reef to be built in Dorset. He put forward a proposal for a reef made of tyres that would be designed to produce surfing waves. This, again, came to a dead end but the debate that it stimulated was useful. It became apparent that the engineers did not like reefs, because they were not a proven form of coastal defence, and that they did not like tyres, because of the threat that they posed to the marine environment. It just so happened that at this time Dr Jensen was starting his research into tyre reefs.


After receiving a couple more discouraging letters David decided to drop the activist stance and research the subject for his own personal interest. It was apparent at this time that none of the leading coastal engineers in the UK were interested in surfing and hence no research was being done in the UK on the subject. Finally, in 1997, the 1st International Surfing Reef Symposium was held in Sydney and David realised that there were other people in the world that shared the same interest. David politely asked his employers, Currie & Brown (C&B), an international company of construction consultants, to purchase the proceedings of this conference and he started to liase with colleagues to initiate a multifunctional artificial reef scheme. Proposals were drawn up for various projects around the south of England and some research was conducted through a student at MSc level. Whilst the proceedings of the conference had broadened the knowledge base of those working at C&B there was still a lot of research that needed to be done. David realised this need for research and approached some of the larger companies and organisations in the country. Unfortunately no one in the UK wanted to fund any such research and, with no research, there was no chance of any progress. With neither the government or any major companies in the UK interested in artificial reefs C&B had to pull out as well.


In the mean time Professor Kerry Black, from The University of Waikato, New Zealand, had the facilities and resources necessary to do the much-needed research and he managed to turn artificial surfing reefs into a viable product. This intensive period of research, known as the Artificial Reefs Program, furnished Professor Black with a portfolio of papers that established how to design an artificial reef for both surfing and coastal defence purposes. Professor Black then collaborated with some of his highly qualified colleagues, whom are also experienced surfers, to form the company called ASR Limited.


David, back in the UK, was in the familiar situation where his interest in artificial reefs had become a personal crusade. He had now developed proposals for several sites around the UK with one of them being at Newquay. He submitted the proposal to Newquay Council but unfortunately it was refused on the grounds that the technologically was unsubstantiated. Fortunately though, in the previous round of developments with C&B, David had gained a contact with the government’s regional engineer for the south west of England. This engineer, who was environmentally aware, saw some of the benefits that artificial reefs could offer to the environment and to the community. He suggested that David put a proposal forward for a reef at Bournemouth using ASR as the consulting engineers. A proposal was drawn up, ASR showed interest, and a presentation was arranged to put the idea forward to the Bournemouth Councillors. The response to the presentation was mixed: the people from leisure and tourism liked it; the local residents did not like the idea of attracting surfers to the area; and the council engineer did not want to use reefs as a form of coastal defence. On leaving the meeting it was suggested that an external report be commissioned to determine what effect a reef would have on the coastline in order to determine whether or not a reef would be a good form of coastal defence. This report was returned with a neutral response that left an open opportunity for ASR to prove that the reef would have no detrimental effect on the coastline. The residents, given time, also come around to the idea of having a reef and so, with leisure/tourism, the local residents and the engineer satisfied, everything was set to go ahead. With the feasibility study complete, and the funding sorted, it is now just a matter for the Council to give the final instruction so that the last stages of the project can begin. ASR, in the meantime, has formed an alliance with C&B where ASR deals with the design side of the scheme and C&B look after the construction side.


Meanwhile, in Newquay, David’s brother, Anthony, was writing proposals of his own. After watching David struggle with his reef campaign Anthony finally found an opportunity to help him. Anthony, who is also a keen surfer, was lucky enough to be given the post of Sustainable Development Officer for Cornwall County Council. It was then, with sustainability in mind, that he realised how environmentally friendly artificial reefs are and hence he got writing to some of the local councillors. The councillors showed an interest and so a series of meetings were arranged with interest growing all the time. The scheme then became considerably more viable when Gul International put some money forward to help fund a feasibility study. This in turn spurred other local companies and councils to contribute money and the project started to snowball. The Newquay Artificial Reef Company was formed to handle the money and a brief was drawn up to explain that the council wanted. In the words of the council “the project must be exciting, must create more and better surf, and must not be a financial risk”. A feasibility study has been commissioned, conducted by ASR in association with C&B, and the results look promising. The report addressed 3 main issues: a, can good surfing waves be produced; b, will there be any environmental problems; and c, can the reef be multifunctional. Through consultation a site was chosen that suited both the fisherman and the surfers. The site has good swell, shelter from the wind and enough access for boats to get past. The next steps for the Newquay reef are: a, cost estimate; b, talking to funding bodies; c, public consultation; d, geotechnical assessment; e, environmental assessment; and f, final design.


At present Bournemouth and Newquay are muscling for first place with both looking for the prestige of being the first artificial surfing reef in the UK. This healthy competition is backed by the fact that they are both looking like promising projects.


The increase in awareness of artificial reefs has given lead to other proposals and there is now talk of reefs at Borth, in Wales, and at Scarborough and Lime Regis in England.





The artificial reef scene in the UK has developed from nothing over the last 15 years and is only 40 or so years old on the global scene. Artificial reefs are still very young, and hence there is a lot of scepticism about them, but there is the driving force that is created by the air of innovation and excitement that surrounds them. It is true that more research needs to be done by independent bodies to open up this very restricted market but it is also true that there are some large consultants in this country that have the knowledge and the power to start using reefs as a form of coastal defence. Experience gained from surfing reefs constructed around the world show that the worst mistake makes made to date were the failure to account for settlement and an under-estimate in the size of reef required to have an effect on the waves. It is worth remembering that so many of today’s coastal defence schemes fail in ways so much more catastrophic than this so reefs are relatively low in risk even though they are still relatively young.


Artificial reefs are a highly sustainable form of coastal defence. They mimic natural land forms and work in harmony with natural processes to create a form of coastal defence that is not only aesthetically more pleasing but can also provide an amenity for surfers. Now that the UK is backing artificial surfing reefs it is not only pledging its support to surfers but also support to the environment as a whole.


Use nature as an exapmle/proof