Through a paper available via the open-access journal PLoS ONE, a team of oceanographers at the University of Bologna and The Inter-Institute Center for Research on Marine Biodiversity has detailed how artificial reefs may provide a unique opportunity to study new ways to protect natural coral reefs.
Used a vessel for hauling military equipment at the start of WWII, the British steamship SS Thistlegorm was carrying motorcycles and munitions across the Red Sea as part of the war effort in the Middle East. It was bombed and sunk off the coast of Egypt, landing on the bottom of the sea 32 metres below the surface. The 128-metre ship came to rest near Ras Muhammad in a fortuitous position—not only are some parts of the wreck just 16 metres below the surface, but it is far enough from the shore that it lies in colder water than most other reefs in the Red Sea. Over 70 years after being sunk, the wreck has become a natural reef.
Making periodic dives to the wreck over the years 2007 to 2014, the team along with “citizen scientist” divers catalogued a myriad of marine species that now use it as their habitat. One of the goals of the project was to find out if an artificial reef, such as a sunken ship, could support as much diversity as a natural reef. To find out, the research team made up a list of 72 creatures that have been identified living on natural coral reefs in the general vicinity. Over the course of the study, the group was able to verify that 71 of the creatures on the list were indeed living on the wreck. Also finding that the numbers of each species tended to remain stable over the study period, the team say their findings indicate that artificial structures such as ship wrecks are indeed capable of sustaining well-established communities of plant and animal life, similar to natural reefs.
Image A BSA M-20 motorcycle in a hold offers shelter to marine biodiversity. Credit: Wilfred_Hdez, CC-BY 2.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)
More information: Chloe Lee et al, Eight years of community structure monitoring through recreational citizen science at the “SS Thistlegorm” wreck (Red Sea), PLOS ONE (2023). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0282239
Journal information: PLoS ONE