Print

The Whittier Artificial Reef Project: an experiment in creating habitat

A 3-5 Week Science Unit for Grades 4-6

Rock fish at a Reefball structure in Shotgun Cove, Prince William Sound, near Whittier.
Rock fish at a Reefball structure in Shotgun Cove, Prince William Sound, near Whittier.

This teaching unit focuses on the ecology and importance of high-latitude rocky reefs as a habitat for marine life and the potential of artificial reefs to mitigate, or compensate, for negative impacts on marine habitats that result from human activities. It culminates with a student role-play of the federal permtting process to consider ecological and social trade-offs about permitting the loss of habitat and determining the appropriate mitigation strategy.

The teaching unit is the result of an experiment in Prince William Sound, Alaska. In May 2006, Alaska's first pre-planned artificial reef was installed in Smitty's Cove in northwestern Prince William Sound, Alaska as mitigation for a project that filled in subtidal habitat to enlarge a barge ramp near the town of Whittier. The reef was an experiment because, although artificial reefs have been used extensively in other areas like the Gulf of Mexico and worldwide to create fish habitat, the success of an artificial reef in creating fish habitat in Alaska waters had never been demonstrated. One of the activities in the unit provides students the opportunity to design their own study to determine if the experiment was successful in creating habitat and to learn about the design and preliminary results of a study that is currently undeway. Read more about the project.

Essential Question:

In what ways do artificial reefs benefit marine life?

Enduring Understandings:

  • Natural habitats are complex and it is challenging to reconstruct them.
  • Science and technology can affect the environment in both negative and positive ways
  • Everyone is responsible for repairing harm to the environment.
  • The scientific process is a way to continually question and monitor the effect of human activities on the environment. 
  • The activities in this unit are designed for grades 4-6. Students develop an understanding of high-latitude rocky reef ecosystems and how and why people are attempting to provide habitat with artificial reef structures through three investigations that build on each other.

Investigation 1: Ecology of a Rocky Reef

  • How do rocky reefs function as habitats?
  • What is the role of rocky reefs in the life cycle of a diversity of marine life?

Days to complete: 7 days

Invent a Habitat

1a. Invent a Habitat

Students gain an understanding of how rocky reefs function as a habitat through looking at the needs of various marine organisms that reside in these reefs. They invent a marine habitat after researching the habitat needs of a select group of marine organisms who live at high latitudes and are adapted to use the structure and texture of a rocky reef.

Rockfish Life Cycle Game

1b. Rockfish Life Cycle Game

Students create a board game of Life geared to the life cycle of a rock fish that can live to be more than 200 years old by researching the factors that could help or harm a rockfish during various stages of its potentially long life.

Larval Collectors

1c. Larval Collectors (Optional activity requiring access to a dock or other marine field trip site)

Students design larval collectors out of readily-available materials to provide a substrate for the settlement of different types of marine larvae that begin life as plankton.

Investigation 2: Using Technology for the Conservation of Rocky Reefs

  • Can people construct artificial reefs that provide habitat for marine life?
  • What are the trade-offs in the technology of creating artificial reefs?

Days to complete: 8 days

Build Your Own Reef

2a. Build Your Own Reef

Students will explore if and how people can construct habitat for marine life by learning about artificial reefs and evaluating the pros and cons of adding an artificial reef to the marine environment. Students will work in small groups to construct their own model artificial reefs for promoting fish populations and present the reasons for their design to the class. If possible, they will conduct an experiment in a classroom aquarium (fresh water or salt water) with shelter-seeking fish.

The Whittier Artificial Reef Project

2b. The Whittier Artificial Reef Project: an experiment in creating habitat

Students will work in groups to design a study to determine whether or not an artificial reef placed in Alaskan waters created habitat for marine organisms. They will then look at the design of the Whittier Artificial Reef Monitoring and Research Project and the preliminary results. They will reflect on what evidence would be necessary to conclude that the placement of the artificial reef had created habitat for seaweeds and rockfish.

Investigation 3:  Conservation of Marine Habitats

  • What are the political trade-offs in creating artificial reefs?
  • What is the value of rocky reef habitat?
  • Who Owns the Ocean?

Days to complete: 4-6 days

Conservation of Marine Habitats

Conservation of Marine Habitats

Students work in pairs or small groups to role-play as public and private stake-holders in a permitting process to decide if a harbor should be built and present their reasoning to students role-playing the decision-makers. They will review other situations to expand their knowledge of the pros and cons of altering natural shorelines and shallow nearshore areas and of artificial reefs as a way to mitigate loss of marine habitat from human activities.

Authors:

Bree Murphy, Beth Trowbridge, Marilyn Sigman

Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, Homer, Alaska

Assistance with Unit Design and Review:  Brian Lance and Jeanne Hansen, NOAA; Brad Reynolds, University of South Alabama and Prince William Science Center; Mike Hellings (Polaris School, Anchorage, Linda Hulen (Bowman Optional, Anchorage), Dan Greenwood (Eagle River Elementary), Ayme Johnson (Highland Tech., Anchorage), Ella Bredthauser (Eagle River Elementary), Ron Goertz  (Alaska SeaLife Center)

Acknowledgements

  • Alaska Marine Lines paid the costs of deploying the artificial reefs as part of a mitigation agreement.
  • Funding for the research project was provided by NOAA Fisheries Alaska Regional Office, NOAA Fisheries Restoration Center, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Coastal Program.
  • The research was carried out by the Prince William Sound Science Center and the Dauphin Island Sea Lab at the University of South Alabama.  
  • Funding for the development of this educational unit was the result of a mitigation agreement for development by the Alaska Railroad Corporation.