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Artificial Reef Test Project by Dr. Hameed Al-Alawi

  • A Brief History of the Artificial Reef Test Project.
  • Overview of Reef & Fisheries.
  • Test Project Design, Research & Documentation.
  • Test Project Accreditation
  • Acknowledgement.

A Brief History of the Artificial Reef (Test Project)

In mid 1992, Carey Ratcliff, President of Ratcliff & Associates, Inc., presented his ambitious Artificial Reef Project proposal to H.R.H. Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who was then the Vice-Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Bahrain Centre for Studies and Research (BCSR), H.R.H. Prince Salman proposed for a Test Project to conduct the necessary research for accreditation. A committee was formed for the “Test Project” comprising of Dr. Sami Danish, Director of Research (BCSR), Carey Ratcliff, President (Ratcliff & Associates, Inc), Dr. P.W. Basson, Professor of Biology (University of Bahrain), and Dr. Hameed Al-Alawi, Managing Director (Bahrain Aqualife Centre).

Overview of Coral Reef & Fisheries

Coral reef and fisheries are chronically and acutely over-fished. Effective management to address this is often hampered by a lack of, or insufficient access to existing information (data, reports, experiences). In addition, decentralised management has in many cases exacerbated this problem due to lack of coordination between various departments and authorities. As a result, major investments have been and are being used suboptimal at best because information and outcomes of many studies are not accessible, or are effectively hidden within individual authorities and in some cases are kept confidential.

Kingdom of Bahrain has been experiencing, and in all likelihood, will continue, for the immediate future, to experience a gradual, albeit steady, decline in the availability of certain species of ornamental and commercial seafood. Due to several factors, the situation could become acute within the next five-seven years unless remedial action is taken. The decline not only affects the ornamental fish, but the commercial seafood and artisanal fishing sectors are also suffering a serious drop in overall production.   

Economics dictate that whenever the availability of any given product declines, the value of that product increases. This theory also applies to the ornamental marine fish, as well as the commercial seafood that are coming from Bahrain in the Arabian Gulf or the neighbouring countries including the countries on the Red Sea.

In past years, Bahrain was able to take advantage of its natural resources from the sea and, as a result, the fishing and pearling industries were not only the economic mainstay, but also the cultural heritage and way of life. The natural resources of Bahrain were directly related to its vast coral reef structures.

Bahrain territorial waters claimed three of the largest reefal complexes in the Arabian Gulf: Fasht Al-Jarim, Fasht Al-Adhom, and the large area of fringing reefs of Al-Muharraq Island and the main Island of Bahrain. The vitality of these coral reefs formed the very basic of the food web in the central Arabian Gulf and contributed seed stock (planktonic planula larvae) and fish stocks much further south to enhance the waters of United Arab Emirates.

The sad demise of these huge coral reefs is a devastating blow to the ecological balance of the Arabian Gulf, which, due to its physical geography and characteristics, always made it precarious at best.

The Arabian Gulf has been characterised by some of the world's leading marine biologists as "the world's largest aquarium" because it is virtually a closed system. Turnover water can only enter and exit by way of the Straits of Hormuz, and except for coriolis effects, would probably take longer than 7-10 years it does now. The live coral reefs served much like an active biological filter (common to all aquarists) to maintain the balance required for the survival of the Arabian Gulf's unique ecosystems.

The decline of natural coral reef in Bahraini territorial waters has had an enormous impact on the ornamental and commercial seafood industries for Bahrain itself and other nations bordering the Gulf. This decline began with the discovery of oil in the region more than 70 years ago. Hydrocarbon pollution from numerous oil spills and very heavy oil tankers traffic and the Gulf Wars have created one of the most polluted bodies of saltwater in the world.

The most immediate threats to the coral reefs of Bahrain are indiscriminate land reclamation and destructive dredging techniques. Land reclamation directly removes coral reefs from the environment, and, along with dredging, produces siltation which chokes and kills coral polyps very quickly.
The main problem with Bahrain's coral reef is that they have always been on the knife-edge of existence due to the high salinity, temperature extremes and low water turnover of the Arabian Gulf, and any additional pressure could be enough to kill them. 

It is impossible and undesirable to turn back the clock of progress, but with costal and industrial development on the increase throughout the Arabian Gulf, the threat of damage reaching irreparable levels is a real one. Here in Bahrain, land reclamation is an essential component in the country's industrial and commercial development but, even when the greatest of care is taken, some amount of damage will still be caused to the costal environment. 

Test Project Design, Research and Observation

The Test Project was designed with specific goals to achieve and to demonstrate the validity of specific theories relating to algal growth, sessile organism assemblage, micro flora and fauna of the benthos and water column, recruitment and subsequent habitation by commercially important species of fish. The structure selected for the Test Project, were concrete pre-fabricated floor slabs manufactured locally. They were the preferred material because of availability, ease of assembly and handling, weight to volume ratio, non-polluting characteristics, and durability in the shallow marine environment, finish texture, large surface area for organism settlement, and cost effectiveness. The square, stacked slab design proved ideal, as it offers little resistance to current, resists sediment build-up. A total of 10 modules were constructed and placed on the seabed.   

Potential areas for the artificial reef Test Project were viewed by me and my team of divers in Bahrain Aqualife Centre, based on the knowledge of the area and fishing grounds. Eventually a suitable site two nautical miles north of Fasht Al-Adhom was selected after dive research determined:

  • Suitability of the composition of the seabed to support the weight of the structures.
  • The total lack of marine life in the immediate area (the nearest being Fasht Al Adhom, 2.2 nautical miles away, being a classic ocean desert.
  • Sufficient current to support life that might inhabit the test reef.
  • Located in an area easily accessible to researchers and fishermen. This was the secondary site due to the fact that the primary location, south of Fasht Al Adhom, had 1.2 – 1.5 meter layer of very fine silt, which would not support the structures. The entire area of the primary location is lost to Bahrain as productive fishing ground due to massive siltation.

The setting procedure proceeded on the 13th February 1993, as originally planned by utilising a 1200 hp tugboat, a crane barge with spud legs, a 200 ton crane and 270 foot boom extension. The structures were placed on the seabed at my direction from the deck of the barge, were dive team members of Bahrain Aqualife Centre, comprising, Abdul Majeed, Hussain, Shelton, and Silva, with Manhal Al Qaisi (a substantial supporter for the project and volunteer diver) released the shackle hooks once the structures were in position on the seabed. 

Sample of the water column and benthos were collected for laboratory analysis, the microbiological examination was carried out by Dr. Philip Basson, Professor of Biology (University of Bahrain). Observation, video recording and sampling of the Test Project structures verified recruitment of fish and settlement. The benthic samples, exhibited three different bacterial colonies. The slab scraping provided four different colonies, two of which are completely different from the colonies in the benthic samples and no evidence of fungal growth was detected. The scrapings microscopic analysis revealed the settlement of two filamentous algae, green algae (Rhizoclonium), and a blue-green (Schizotrix). In addition, there were six different species of diatoms present (Mastogloia sp), (Navicula sp), (Nitzchia sp), (Cylindrotheca sp), (Amphora sp) and (Thalassionema sp), both individual and colonial forms. The significance of the diatoms settlement is that they are the primary producers (autotrophs) and form the base of most food chains in the marine environment. 

With the colonisation of the concrete slabs by diatoms and green and blue-green algae, the beginning of successional stages has begun. It was only a matter of time before larger algae and animals (barnacles, bivalves, sponges, tube worms, etc.) invaded this previously uninhabited substrate. Visits to the site were made since then. None too surprising, four species of ornamental reef fish namely, Pomacanthus maculosus, Heniochus acuminatus, Chaetodon nigropunctatus, Psedudochromis persicus (previously believed to be only associated with live coral reefs) are known to have taken up residence in the Test Project artificial reef structures, as well as many other commercial species feeding on the structure such as Plectrorhincus sordiadus, Lethrinus lentjan, Lutjanus fulviflamma, scolopsis taeniatus, Scolopsis ghanam, and pelagic species such as Gnathanodon specious, Carangoides bajad and Scomberoides commersonianus. Large amounts of fouling organisms such as bryozoans, nudibranchs, Sabellastarte sanctijosephi, Centrostephanus rodgersii, Hydrozoans, and black sponges have also colonised on the structure too. This is evidenced by the fact that the artificial reefs were located on an ocean desert, with the nearest reef structure being just over two nautical miles distant.

Through the past decade of observation and recording, the Test Project artificial reef, has proven to be an ambitious one and one that must be allowed to succeed, not just for Bahrain, but for other neighbouring countries too.  The state of the ornamental fish and commercial seafood industries of Bahrain, through the efforts of the authorities may reverse the existing declining trend and make the central Arabian Gulf vital and viable in the near future.

It is our desire to include consideration for the environment in all our future development plans, because eventually the world decimation of sea life and other areas of the natural environment as a whole, will eventually threaten man's own existence. We must learn from our past mistakes, but also from our forefathers, whose ancient knowledge is often the basis for 'radical' new ideas. It is interesting to note that as long ago as 2,000 years; the fisherman of Bahrain would take an old and unserviceable dhow out to sea and sink it, thereby creating an artificial reef structure to improve their fishing potential. They knew even then that you had to give something back to the sea once you have taken from it.
It is the opinion of the author that the Test Project results were overwhelming success in that the majority of the goals were achieved and most of the research was carried out as planned. Click on the short video to watch 15 years of successful growth and species colonisation on a well planned man made reef.

Test Project Accreditation


Through this acknowledgment, I express my sincere gratitude to all those individuals who have been associated with this test project and have helped me with it and made it a worthwhile experience.

Firstly I extend my sincere gratitude to H.R.H Amir Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, for his personal support, belief in me personally, and his contribution, without which this test project and study would never have become a reality. My thanks and appreciation also go to the following individuals for their kind co-operation, support and effort, without which the test project would not have been possible as planned: Shaikh Mohammed bin Issa Al Khalifa, Chief Executive of the Bahrain Economic Development Board, Manhal Al Qaisi, Director of Arabian Gulf Bio-Remedies, Dr. Kamal Al-Kaisi, Professor of Marine Biology, Arabian Gulf University, Dr. Sami Danish, Director of research, BCSR, Jassim Al Qaseer, General Director, Public Commission for the Protection of Marine Resources, Environment & Wildlife - Directorate of Marine Resources, Carey Ratcliff, Ratcliff & Associates Inc. Brigadier Zuhair Al Absi, Bahrain Coast Guard, with my thanks and appreciation to Dr. Philip Basson, Professor of Biology, University of Bahrain, who devoted his personal time, willingly shared his considerable knowledge and helped in sample analysis of this study.   I would like to especially thank Dr. Carl Oppenheimer, Prof. Emeritus of Marine Sciences, The University of Texas, for accrediting the test result, and finally I express my thanks to my diving team members, Abdul Majeed, Hussain, Shelton and Silva, at Bahrain Aqualife Centre for another job well-done.