The lack of EU-wide legislation on artificial reefs creates uncertainty

by Thomas Jensen
Artificial reef

An underused instrument to foster biodiversity

This article was featured in Eurofish Magazine 2 2024.

Artificial reefs offer many environmental benefits, but the rules and regulations governing their deployment are inconsistent across the EU. Remedying this may lead to greater utilisation of these structures and a better understanding of their impacts both positive and negative.

The concept of artificial reefs dates back centuries, though the term “artificial reef” itself is a more recent designation. Historical records from the Roman Empire already mention the use of brushwood and stone structures in coastal waters to attract fish. In ancient China fishermen used different materials like stone, bamboo, and wood to create artificial structures which provided habitat for fish and other marine organisms. In indigenous communities of the South Pacific stone structures were created underwater to enhance fish aggregation. All these practices resemble modern concepts of artificial reefs and are considered early forms, since they demonstrate an awareness of the benefits of creating structures in the marine environment to support fishing activities.

Better management of artificial reefs calls for legislative ­improvements

Since the mid-20th century, interest in artificial reefs has expanded globally, and various materials, structures, and deployment techniques have been employed for ecological restoration, coastal protection, fisheries enhancement, and scientific research. Greater understanding of the ecological and economic benefits has led to the deliberate creation and management of artificial reefs in many coastal regions, including Europe. Countries, however, need to introduce new rules and regulations to better manage these structures. An updated legal framework must consider environmental and economic conditions, cultural and social backgrounds, the status of fisheries and related areas of activity in marine water, as well as general knowledge on the advantages and disadvantages of artificial reefs. These and other conditions can vary from country to country. For example, the deployment of artificial reefs in Spain aims mainly to protect specific marine aquatic species, in France the objective is to increase fisheries production, while the United Kingdom focuses on research.

The main purposes behind artificial reef deployment can change over time. In the 1990s most artificial reefs were established for protection purposes, while support for recreational uses like scuba diving and angling only started to appear in 20001. As a result, each country that has deployed these underwater structures has followed its own path in terms of recognition and usage. The result is a hotch-potch of rules and regulations where neighbouring countries’ rules may contradict each other—and sometimes even within a country the laws may conflict, for instance when different marine waters are considered.

Reefs are currently ­governed by different legal frameworks

As of today, there is no unified set of regulations governing artificial reefs across the EU. Instead, there are broader environmental, fisheries, and spatial planning regulations, that influence the legal framework behind artificial reefs. Marine environmental protection laws aim to secure and set standards for environmental protection, and they also have an indirect influence on artificial reefs. One such piece of EU legislation is the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), which aims to achieve Good Environmental Status (GES) of the marine environment. GES defines the environmental status of marine waters where they provide ecologically diverse and dynamic oceans and seas which are clean, healthy, and productive.


Another example is the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), a set of rules managing fisheries activities in the EU, which also has an impact on legislation regarding artificial reefs. Certain countries have specific regulations or guidelines related to the use of artificial reefs in fisheries management, and in many of them this was the main reason to establish a reef. The Habitats Directive and Birds Directive are habitat protection laws aiming to protect valuable and threatened species and habitats. Although not exclusive to artificial reefs, these directives have implications for the protection of marine ecosystems where artificial reefs may be located. The Habitats Directive aims to protect over a thousand species, including mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, invertebrates, and plants. In addition, it covers 230 characteristic habitat types. The objective is to ensure that these species and habitat types are maintained or restored to a favourable conservation status within the EU, and to allow them to recover and develop over the long-term as well.

Challenges to be ­overcome when ­developing new laws

Many EU countries are developing Marine Spatial Plans (MSPs) to manage marine spaces effectively. The inclusion or exclusion of artificial reefs in these plans depends on national priorities and considerations of conservation, economic activities, and sustainable development. Thus, maritime spatial planning is a tool to manage the use of the seas and oceans coherently and to ensure that human activities take place in an efficient, safe, and sustainable way. As many activities take place in Europe’s seas at any given time including fishing, aquaculture, shipping, renewable energy, nature conservation and other uses that compete for maritime space, maritime spatial planning supports EU countries to provide proper legislation on all the activities. While rules and regulations of associated areas can provide some guidance regarding the management of artificial reefs, the artificial reef industry will need to be controlled with more precise laws and standards that are clear, are in conformity with other uses of marine water, and comply with other EU rules, regulations and directives. However, there are various challenges and barriers that need to be faced when developing a coherent legal framework for artificial reefs. These include regulatory challenges, lack of standardised guidelines, limited scientific knowledge, public awareness and acceptance, and socioeconomic challenges.

Complex and varying regulatory frameworks across European countries pose challenges to all users of marine water. Obtaining permits for artificial reef projects may involve navigating different regulatory requirements, especially when territories of different countries are involved, creating a barrier to streamlined development. The lack of a proper legal background at EU level adds to this. The absence of standardised guidelines on the design, deployment, and monitoring of artificial reefs is another barrier that can impede progress and create uncertainties and misunderstandings for stakeholders involved in such activities.

More research is ­desirable to better understand artificial reefs

Despite ongoing research, there are still gaps in scientific knowledge regarding several areas of artificial reefs. These include technical conditions, climate change aspects, long-term ecological impacts, socioeconomic features, role in the spreading of alien species, and impact on different marine species. A better understanding of these impacts is essential for making informed decisions and developing more efficient legislative and management strategies. Moreover, cooperation and knowledge sharing is very limited, though an enhanced collaboration and information exchange among European countries could accelerate a better understanding of the status and role, development, and distribution of artificial reefs. Limited collaboration results in missed opportunities for shared learning and best practices. Socioeconomic impacts of artificial reefs, including effects on local fisheries, tourism, and recreation, must also be carefully considered by legislation. Balancing benefits with potential disruptions is crucial for the acceptance of artificial reef deployment.

Increasing public awareness and acceptance is very important at all times when a new concept is being developed. Lack of public awareness and understanding of the benefits and objectives of artificial reefs can lead to scepticism or resistance from local communities. Thus, as in many cases, public support is essential for success.

Eva Kovacs,

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