Whittier, Alaska, is a community of about 200 people located on the shoreline of Prince William Sound, one of the premier recreation areas in Alaska for fishing, kayaking, wildlife-viewing, and wilderness camping. As a coastal community, it is a port of the Alaska state ferry system and accessible by other boats but a long way from other ports. It has unique access by road and railroad. A 2.5 mile-long tunnel was built in 1943 for the railroad that connected Whittier to the highway to Anchorage. People could drive cars onto rail cars for transportation through the tunnel. In 2000, the tunnel was converted into a railroad-highway tunnel with the addition of a one-lane highway. East-bound and west-bound traffic take turns on the one lane.
When the tunnel was open for vehicle traffic, people could drive directly to Whittier from Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, and from the Kenai Peninsula for the first time. Fishermen could more easily transport their catches to market. The number of visitors to Whittier and boat traffic soared. The demand for docking and anchorage for small boats, cargo vessels, cruise ships, and commercial fishing vessels increased dramatically. A variety of development activities were undertaken to provide facilities for boats, such as harbors, dredged channels, gravel fill ramps and shoreline extensions, and sheet-pile dock structures. These development activities had the potential to alter the function of the pristine marine coastal habitats in the Whittier area because they required the removal, alteration, or elimination of existing living habitat structure including rocky reefs and aquatic vegetation such as seaweeds and eelgrass beds.
In Shotgun Cove, Alaska Marine Lines developed a plan to extend an existing ramp seaward when they expanded their container facility. This required gravel fill in an intertidal area, which triggered a permit requirement from the Army Corps of Engineers for filling in “waters of the United States,” that extend to the high tide line. The Corps of Engineers’ permit system requires that negative impacts be mitigated. The results of the permitting process was a mitigation requirement [these two phrases would be linked to the Permitting and Mitigation section] that took the form of an experiment using “fish haven” and “reef ball” structures to create an artificial reef similar to ones that had been created in other places in the world to provide fish habitat. If the experiment is successful, the artificial reef will be a new tool to restore fish habitat around Alaskan coastal communities experiencing similar developmental and recreational pressures.
In May 2006, one hundred fish havens and one hundred reef balls were deployed in three paired patches in the Smitty's Cove area of Shotgun Cove in water depths of 15-20m over an area where the bottom was a mixture of soft and hard sediment substrates.
Monitoring the Success of the Artificial Reef
Although many projects are required to provide mitigation in the form of habitat restoration or enhancement, the tools, or methods, for doing so are fairly limited. Ideally, the success of the mitigation actions are monitored in terms of whether the new or improved habitat supports the number and types of fish and wildlife desired. Mitigation projects can have a straightforward means for monitoring success – for example, the success of the removal of a barrier to fish migration can be monitored in terms of whether and how many fish move upstream and use the upstream area to spawn. It is more difficult to monitor the success of an artificial reef structure, particularly one that is underwater.
A variety of structures have been placed in the ocean for the purpose of creating fish habitat. People learned long ago that sunken ships often became good fishing and diving sites. Many artificial reefs were created off the East Coast of the U.S. and in the Gulf of Mexico by dumping a variety of materials, including scuttled boats, planes, and tanks; tires, oyster shell, and waste concrete. The regulation of this practice of waste disposal began in the 1980s with concerns about the introduction of materials into the ocean that were toxic or which created harm in other ways that outweighed any short-term gain in fish habitat. Engineered artificial reef structures such as the ones used in the Whittier project became available in the 1980s and placement began specifically to create or restore habitat. Monitoring the results has not always occurred.
In Alaska, fisheries managers want to see if the success of artificial reefs as fish habitat can be demonstrated. They have made a “trade-off,” by accepting a loss of habitat in one area that may be offset by the deployment of the artificial reef. The monitoring project is important to analyze whether or not the artificial reef will compensate for the habitat lost. Because of the importance of the monitoring study, funding was provided by the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Regional Office, the NOAA Fisheries Restoration Center, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Coastal Program in addition to the mitigation funds paid by Alaska Marine Lines.