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3-D printed artificial reef installed in the Pamlico Sound

The Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina has partnered with NATRX, a sustainable infrastructure company, to deploy a 3-D printed artificial reef system to the Pamlico Sound.

About 10 years ago the people of Bath, NC, raised $15,000 for a reef improvement project. That money was then given to the Coastal Conservation Association of NC (CCA), but David Sneed, the executive director of CCA, said the division of marine fisheries, or DMF, had little interest in the project until now.

“The division was just never really interested in trying to do any improvements on that site. They had some concerns about whether the bottom would sustain the structure or the structure that was put down there, and so they just kind of kept putting this off," Sneed said.

But after years of phone calls and a new partnership with NATRX, a startup company working towards building sustainable infrastructure, Sneed said they were finally able to get the project moving.

“Our main focus is rebuilding and maintaining and conserving our coastal fish stocks. And so we got the go-ahead from DMF to pursue this reef improvement project, we started fast-tracking some ideas with NATRX and raised some extra money to be able to buy enough structures to make it worthwhile," Sneed said.

At the time, NATRX was in the office space right next door to CCA. Leonard Nelson, CEO of NATRX, says his organization was eager to come on board.

“Key enabling technology we've developed and patented is a 3d printer. And we can print [and] make very large structures, about 4000 pounds apiece, in 30 minutes," Nelson said.

Nelson said the site already has some reef material, but they’re 'material of opportunity,' like old tires and waste. He said that in a way, fish are just like us.

“They need shelter, they need foraging areas, they need places to breed and to eat. And that requires a specific structure, just like we need the house a certain size and geometry for us to fit in it. So with the 3d printing technology, we can develop custom structures that are targeted toward the species in those areas, and we can keep learning and improving over time," Nelson said.

The whole process is a widely collaborative effort with ecologists and contractors to design the right fit for the habitat and print it so it’s safe and efficient to install. Nelson recognized it’s an ever-changing process.

“As we continue to learn, we can use artificial intelligence and other tools to get better and better at matching the habitat and the structure, the roughness, the geometry, to the actual needs of the ecosystem in the various fisheries in North Carolina," he said.

Sneed said that once the reef is installed, it’ll be home to many different species of both freshwater and saltwater game fish but there are other benefits as well.

“We do know there's been a loss of a lot of native oyster reefs in that area from dredging practices in the past, primarily shrimp dredging, or sort of trawling. So we've lost a lot of those natural reefs. And we can put these structures in an area where we can act, we can also encourage moisture rehabilitation... we're not just creating fish habitat, we're also restoring moisture populations, and we're contributing to better water quality by using those filter systems," he said.

Not only will this reef create a healthy habitat, it’ll also help protect coastal communities from other threats like storm surges. The North Carolina coast has lost around 90 percent of its hard substrate which creates a natural barrier against inclement weather. This artificial reef will help rebuild that barrier.

“Nobody can argue that it's not beneficial. It's going to help not only the ecosystem, it's going to help the local economy because it creates recreational fishing opportunities for recreational anglers. They come into a community, they spend money. So it's a benefit for the wildlife, our resources, but it's also a benefit for the people that live in that area as well," Sneed said.

While Sneed sees the positive impacts the local community will benefit from, Nelson said this is still a global issue.

“If you don't have healthy reef systems and seagrasses vegetation, you're also dumping bad water, bad quality water into the oceans and increasing ocean acidification. It can lead to the collapse of ocean ecology globally," Nelson said.

The reef will be installed in the Pamlico Sound this week. There will be a total of one hundred structures, reaching around 2 acres of watershed.