Musings on the ethics of artificial reef construction

Yesterday I was listening to discussion on the radio about a planned artificial reef near Geographe Bay in the south west of Western Australia. Information on the artificial reef plan can be found at the Fisheries department web site []. The commentators were arguing about the costs and benefits of the proposed structure and what struck me most was that there appeared to be no system to evaluate the acceptability, or otherwise, of the costs and benefits of artificial reef other than weight of public opinion.

In this post I would like to look at the question of acceptability, or otherwise, of artificial reef construction from an ethics perspective. A warning to readers: my thoughts on the issue are not fully formed.

To start with: an artificial reef is a human-made underwater structure, typically built to promote marine life in areas with a generally featureless bottom. Artificial reefs have been used around the world to create fish habitat, regenerate damaged ecosystems and to enhance angler catch. The question I ask is: is it ethical to artificially alter the natural marine environment in this way?

Arguably we have been manipulating the marine environment for centuries, for example by fishing activities that reduce total abundance of target and ‘by-product’ species, by actions that change the physical nature of the ocean, whether the seabed (eg dredging and trawling) or water quality (increased runoff and waste disposal). Although we can foresee the occurrence of such significant changes, they are an unintended side effect. and this íntent’ is the key difference between what we have been doing for centuries and artificial reef construction.

The distinction between intended effects and foreseen but unintended effects is a common sense approach, and has found its way into definitions of common law: the principle of Mens rea: actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea, which means “the act does not make a person guilty unless the mind is also guilty”.

The known and intended consequences of artificial reef construction are localised increased in biodiversity and localised increase in fishing activities. The unintentional risks most commonly associated with artificial reef construction are:

  • the risks of disrupting complex (and poorly understood) ecological systems
  • the risk of merely aggregating fish (as opposed to increasing overall abundance) for easier extraction
  • the risk of promoting increased fishing activity leading to increased pressure on the marine environment.

It may be possible to reduce the risks of known and unintended risks through governance arrangements such as bag limits and seasonal restrictions. However, in some cases the only effective way to reduce the risk of artificial reefs may be to not construct them. Therefore we arrive at a familiar situation (that was discussed on the radio) of having to trade-off benefits of promoting good applications of intervention to improve biodiversity against the risks of enabling harmful outcomes. It is my opinion is that construction of artificial reefs can be regarded as treating the symptoms (low fish abundance) rather than the causes of environmental decline (over fishing and other environmental stresses) and therefore it is relevant to involve a consideration of the ‘moral hazard’ alongside traditional method of cost: benefit type impact assessment.

In economics, the term ‘moral hazard’ is used to refer to the reduced incentive to take care caused by insurance; a car driver with insurance is less likely to drive carefully than one without. In relation to artificial reefs, the fear is that fishers, policymakers or society at large will have weaker incentives to protect the marine environment if they know that artificial reef methods can and likely will be used to offset these pressures, thus leading to an overall increase in fishing activities.

I do not see why a weaker incentive to reduce fishing pressure would be a bad thing, provided that any increase in pressure is indeed offset through artificial reef production. In the case of insurance, moral hazard is often regarded as socially suboptimal because offsetting the costs of accidents through insurance is typically more costly than taking care to avoid such accidents. Proponents of artificial reefs contend that the construction costs (and presumably the costs of governance) are less than the costs of tackling the cause of decreasing catches. If this is right, and if the cost proposed for the Geographe Bay reef of $2.2 million is accurate I have no reason to doubt it, then the moral hazard objection may have force only if artificial reef construction is ‘intrinsically wrong’,  and therefore wrong even if ones contribution will be offset by artificial reef construction.

It is sometimes argued that anthropogenic intervention (i.e. artificial reef construction) is intrinsically bad, even if it does not increase the chances of harmful consequences beyond that which would exist in the absence of human intervention, because of the very fact that it is man-made and therefore unnatural. This is a moral distinction that I hope to write about in the future, for now I see no moral justification to treat anthropogenic disturbance differently from natural disturbance. It therefore follows that artificial reef construction cannot be ‘intrinsically wrong’.


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