Grand Bahama’s Reef Ball Project – It reeled me in, hook, line and sinker

By Cheri Wood
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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he first time I heard the term “reef ball,” I could not imagine what it was. I was attending a monthly Sustainable Tourism meeting in Freeport, Grand Bahama and one of the members, Barry Smith, mentioned he had a reef ball project going on at his place of business known as Paradise Cove/Deadmanís Reef. My mind conjured up images of everything from ball shaped buoys being placed around the existing coral reef to some sort of covert drug sting operation. Many others in the room seemed to know what was going on, so I had to let go of any fear of judgment regarding my intelligence level and ask for details. By the end of his brief project overview, I knew the environmental enthusiast in me would have to be involved with this initiative.

Founder and chairman of the Reef Ball Foundation, Todd Barber, is interviewed by a local student George McInness (High school winner of FLIFF 2013) about the Reef Ball project.
Founder and chairman of the Reef Ball Foundation, Todd Barber, is interviewed by a local student George McInness (High school winner of FLIFF 2013) about the Reef Ball project.

First let’s clear up any mystery around what a reef ball is. Simply put, a reef ball is a manmade concrete formation that when placed in the sea acts like a coral Chia Pet. You put the ball in the water, place some coral plugs in it, let it feed off of the nutrients in the sea and voila, you have a ball shaped bunch of coral. When you place a bunch of the balls in a contiguous form, it emulates the look and function of a natural coral reef. It sounds really fundamental and for the most part the concept is simple, however these are no regular concrete balls and the way they are placed in the ocean is determined by science, not by someone’s artistic whim. According to the Reef Ball Foundation there are over 500,000 reef balls that have been strategically placed in the oceans worldwide in nearly 70 countries.

Each reef ball is made from a special concrete form that uses an inflatable bladder to provide a hollow center. The inflatable bladders are also used when the reef balls are deployed, making them buoyant and easy to move in the water. The concrete used to make the balls is a special mixture that mimics PH levels that are optimal for coral growth and the surrounding sea they are placed in. The design of these structures allows for water to swirl through them which provides nutrients to the organisms who take up residence in these luxurious coral condominiums. Over time a single reef ball can produce 500 lbs of biomass which includes fish, lobster, coral and algae. Each reef ball is also anchored in a designated spot, so when the seas are rough they provide shelter for those in need.

As we know, the impacts humans have had on existing coral reefs is not a flattering tale to tell. We have thrown anchors on them, overfished them, polluted the waters around them and taken things from them for our living room tables. Numerous studies indicate that over the years we have managed to kill over 25% of the coral reefs on the planet and the remaining 75% are in jeopardy if we do not take some sort of restorative action.

I recently was having a discussion with someone about coral reefs and they asked me why everyone is so concerned about them. I quickly surmised that this person had no concept of the important role that reefs play in our very existence on the planet and decided to give them a quick education. Since it is impossible to fit all the benefits into a few words or a couple of minutes I went with four benefits that most people can relate to ñ 1) nursery for fish, 2) integral part of the food chain for everything in the sea and people too, 3) protection for the land from weather related shoreline degradation, and 4) in many locations they have a direct positive impact on tourism. It is pretty simple. Growing healthy coral reefs equates to abundance on many levels and deploying reef balls in our oceans is one way we can accomplish this. But thatís only the beginning of the good news.

Royal Bahamas Defense Force Ranger Youth assists with preparing reef balls for deployment.
Royal Bahamas Defense Force Ranger Youth assists with preparing reef balls for deployment.

The Reef Ball Foundation is intimately involved with every reef ball project and with each project there are benefits to the local community that go beyond what flourishes in the sea. There are educational opportunities for children and the local people who assist with the project. A growing reef provides a living classroom that can be studied over time. On Grand Bahama children are interacting with scientists and educators on site at Paradise Cove. There is a local high school marine conservation group who is assisting with scientific data collection that will be used in an environmental impact study and other local children have helped with preparing the reef balls for deployment. There really is no down side to the project, and for fisherman the benefits are obvious.

Local students learn about reef ball construction.
Local students learn about reef ball construction.

Living in the Bahamas, I am surrounded by people who come to the islands for pleasure and for many of them fishing is that pleasure. A neighbor of mine loved the fishing on Grand Bahama so much that he ended up buying a home here and visits several months each year. He has gone on fishing expeditions all over the world and prefers Grand Bahama over any other place, even other islands in the Caribbean.

His thoughts on the role that coral reefs play in the quality of sport fishing was very clear. He stated that reefs are vital to the sport fishing industry, for without healthy reefs you do not have food for the fish and without the fish you have no sport. He relayed that we absolutely must give back what we take and if reef balls will replenish an area then why wouldnít we deploy them where needed? It all sounds so simple, but the impact these structures have on the surrounding environment and fish population is anything but simple, it is downright miraculous.

There are approximately 300 reef balls scheduled to be deployed at the Grand Bahama site throughout February of 2014. Once completed this will be the largest continuous reef ball reef in the Bahamas, compared to other sites in Abaco, New Providence, The Berry Islands, San Salvador and Eleuthera.

Since I attended the meeting that ignited my passion for this reef ball project I have been to the Paradise Cove/Deadmanís Reef site several times and have seen local volunteers, children, scientists and other community members all interacting and assisting with the project. The interest from the local community has been very positive and others outside the community have become involved serving in various capacities including financial support through an exclusive program for this specific initiative.

On Grand Bahama we have a unique opportunity for individuals or businesses to adopt a reef ball to assist with the costs of this important environmental replenishment project. Adopting a reef ball is tax deductible in the United States and can be done for as little as $200. Adopting a reef ball is a great way to show your support for the environment or your love of sport fishing. It is also a great gift for your fellow fisherman or environmentalist and it comes with a certificate and GPS coordinates. If this is something that might make sense for you visit www.deadmansreef.com for more details.

Grand Bahama's own Tommy Folley with sport fisherman Phil from Pennsylvania who believes that reef replenishment is critical for the future of sport fishing on Grand Bahama.
Grand Bahama’s own Tommy Folley with sport fisherman Phil from Pennsylvania who believes that reef replenishment is critical for the future of sport fishing on Grand Bahama.

Reef balls provide us with a way to start giving back what we have been taking. It gives us an opportunity to replenish areas that have been overfished or areas that have been destroyed by pollution or development. If we just give a little, Mother Nature will work her magic in appreciation of our assistance and areas that are in jeopardy can be replenished and healthy once again.

For further details on reef ball benefits, projects, and locations of reef ball sites you can visit www.reefball.org.

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