Ships to Reefs

USS Willamette, 700 ft.


Orange County Coastkeeper partnered with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), to urge the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) to reconsider their guidelines for vessels eligible for sinking. We convinced them to change their policy and now ships that were built before 1985 are no longer eligible for sinking. This is a huge victory for our coast! Read more about what the group below had proposed, and why we are so relieved this will no longer be an issue for Orange County. Although, similar threats will still persist for other regions along our coast that are threatened by the sinking of other vessels such as large Navy tugboats.

California Ships to Reefs (CSTR) is an organization whose vision is to establish a regional system of reefed ships along the California coast for purposes of an international dive destination, to enhance the tourism industry centered on fishing and diving, and to improve and enhance the California fish populations. CSTR is proposing sinking a decommissioned Navy oil super tanker, to create an artificial reef, off the coast of Dana Point.  CSTR claims that sinking the USS Willamette will revitalize the marine ecosystem of Dana Point, but what are the actual consequences that the sinking of this ship will have on the marine habitat?

Coastkeeper supports the creation of artificial reefs in Orange County as one of many tools to help boost marine ecosystems. For example, in 2010, Coastkeeper supported the Rigs to Reefs bill because these structures are already existing and productive reefs that do not have the same environmental concerns as decommissioned Navy oilers. Coastkeeper does oppose utilizing expensive and environmentally damaging methods in order to create a haven for commercial fishermen and divers with the “promise” of helping the marine ecosystem. What will the true consequences of such an ambitious project be?

Coastkeeper supports the responsible creation of artificial reefs that consider the true effects of laying artificial objects to rest on the ocean floor, including the burdens of financing, the environment, reliability, and aesthetics.

Orange County should focus on the most efficient and cost effective options for water security.  It should first be determined what the actual effects of using vessels for artificial reefs are and develop a strategy to achieve those goals by using the best available technology with the lowest price and highest potential for future savings.  Decommissioned naval vessels should not be utilized as artificial reefs before fully exploring and adopting the less expensive and proven options such as sinking materials specifically designed for use as an artificial reef, while recycling or reusing retired naval vessels that are currently candidates for artificial reefing.

Environmental Concerns:

Fishery Concerns Misc. Human Health Risk
  • Oil and Fuel
  • Asbestos
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Iron
  • Antifouling paint
  • Polybrominated diphenyls esters
  • Antifreeze coolants
  • Batteries
  • Fire Extinguishing Systems
  • Refrigerants and halons
  • Mercury
  • Lead
  • Black and grey water
  • Asbestos
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

The Vessels

CSTR originally proposed the sinking of the U.S.S. Kawishiwi AO-146 (Kawishiwi) a mile and a half southwest of Dana Point Harbor by two miles off Capistrano Beach. The Kawishiwi is a Neosho Class Navy oil super tanker launched in 1954 and decommissioned in 1979. The vessel displaces 11,600 long tons (LT), with a length of 655 ft., an 86 ft. beam, and a 35 ft. draft. The Kawishiwi carried 180,000 barrels, equivalent to 28,000 tons or 7 million gallons, of oil and fuel usually in tour of the Pacific during the Vietnam war.

UPDATE: It was determined by the U.S. Maritime Administration, that the USS Kawishiwi is unsuitable for sinking because it contains PCBs.

CSTR has identified the USS Willamette for sinking in Dana Point. BUT, the USS Willamette is even larger than the Kawishiwi. The USS Willamette was commissioned in 1982, and decommissioned in 1999. The vessel displaces approx. 37,000 LT, with a length of 700 ft., an 88 ft. beam, and a 32 ft. draft. The Willamette carried 150,000 barrels of fuel oil or aviation fuel and several tons of additional goods.

Comparisons to the artificial reef created by CSTR in San Diego by the sinking of the H.M.C.S. Yukon (Yukon) are not compelling. The Yukon was a Canadian MacKenzie Class Destroyer launched in 1961 and sank off Mission Bay in 2000. The scale of the Willamette far exceeds that of the Yukon, a vessel of only 366 ft, 42 ft beam and 2,380 tons. In comparison, the sinking of the Willamette will be the most significant sinking off Southern California’s coast for the purpose of creating an artificial reef and the type of vessel chosen, an oil super tanker, could not be more harmful.

According to CSTR, the organization has “gained support from the California Department of Fish and Game” and has a projected sinking date of 2013. If you oppose this project, write to or call Dana Point’s City CouncilState Assembly member or SenatorCongressman, or the California Coastal Commission.

What is an artificial reef?


Artificial reefs are man-made structures placed in water for the purpose of enhancing fishery resources as well as commercial and recreational opportunities such as fishing and diving. See National Fisheries Enhancement Act of 1984 (NFEA). Often, these structures are comprised of vehicles or other large manufactured products which are obsolete and require disposal.

The majority of artificial reefs, including San Diego’s Yukon reef, have been established with the intention of enhancing marine resources.  However, there is a continuing debate over artificial reefs as to whether they truly serve to increase the population of marine life or if they merely act to attract fish from other areas while allowing for the cheap disposal of unused and unwanted items.

“Artificial reefs have been sold by a number of specific interests that benefit from them… The oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico, the sports-fishing and recreational-diving industries up and down both coasts, and the people who need to dispose of old cars, bridges and boats, all make out better than the fish and sea anemones do.” Jack Sobel, former director of strategic conservation science and policy at the Ocean Conservancy in Washington, D.C.

Ineffectiveness of artificial reefs in promoting health of marine ecosystems

Artificial reefs are promoted by the fishing industry, diving industry, and waste disposers as a quick and easy way to create marine habitat, but questions need to be answered as to whether such reefs damage natural habitats, concentrate fish and other creatures in a way that leads to over extraction.

A proven impact of artificial reefs is that they attract fish and therefore have the potential to concentrate populations for rapid harvest. The Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission (GSMFC) suggests that concentrated populations themselves may lead to overfishing and the decline of species within the vicinity of the reef site.

Many scientists are concerned that the artificial reef movement is driven more by fishing, diving, and trash disposal interests than by environmental concerns.

“Reefs attract sea creatures, but don’t necessarily cause an increase in living matter. And there may be some environmental harm.” – Bill Summers, an oceanography professor at Western Washington University.

Economic Analysis 

Costs of Artificial Reefing Retired Vessels

  1. Cost of cleaning [to level of best practice standards] - INFO FROM BAN REPORT ON SINKEX NAVAL DUMPING PROGRAM: The U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) recognizes “the requirements in the BMP [National Guidance:  Best Management Practices for Preparing Vessels Intended to Create Artificial Reefs]  to remove all solid PCBs  [polychlorinated biphenyls]  above the regulated limits for purposes of creating an artificial reef could negate potential cost advantages of artificial reefing compared to conventional dismantling.”  In fact, Maritime Administrator David Matsuda was cited by the Washington Post in 2009 as saying artificial reefing is 3 to 5 times as costly as domestic recycling. []

    On a disposal cost per ton basis, reefing these vessels costs an average of $554/ton, for which MARAD and the Navy contributed an average of $253/ton.  However, the costs to recycle these ships domestically during this same period was an average of $67/ton which would equate to a savings to the U.S. taxpayer of $21.5 million. [ ]

  2. Cost of future remediation - As the average vessel has an underwater life span of only sixty years, after sixty years all vessels that have been used as artificial reefs will require clean-up and remediation in order to avoid environmental degradation and toxic exposure. The cost of this remediation far outweighs the hypothetical benefit to fisheries and divers. In addition, such clean-up efforts will further disturb any existing or developing ecosystem.

Alternatives for naval vessels

  1. Domestic recycling - Domestic recycling is an excellent method for disposal of obsolete vessels. When regulations and oversight procedures are complied with, domestic recycling allows hazardous materials to be disposed of with much less impact on the environment and human health than ship-scuttling and ocean dumping. In addition, recycling restores valuable scrap metals such as copper, steel, aluminum, and copper nickel to the domestic market. Not only do many vessels contain over a million dollars of salvageable metals, recycling also reduces the demand for new production and extraction of virgin materials, which in turn imposes an entirely new set of detrimental impacts on the environment. [Source: Basel Action Network - Dishonorable Disposal Report]

    Over the past decade, the Federal government has deliberately dumped 600,000 tons of recyclable steel, aluminum and copper at sea via the U.S. Navy and U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) ship disposal programs. The recyclable resources that exist within the hulls of 95 retired naval vessels that are now candidates for the artificial reefing program, are valued at an estimated $600 million in today’s commodities marketplace; however, these materials now  waste away on the ocean floor with all material value forever lost. [Source: Basel Action Network - Dishonorable Disposal Report. Page 7]

    Rough calculations based on info provided above:

    • 1,000 tons of recyclable steel, aluminum and copper = $1 million
    • 1 vessel contains approximately 1,000 tons of this material
    • 1 vessel = $1 million
  2. Impact on employment / jobs lost - Over the past decade in which the Federal Government has disposed of 674,318 tons of material at sea, of which only 9% was actual waste, (613,629 tons could have been fully recycled).  At the very least, 6,244 direct green recycling jobs, each lasting approximately one year, have been squandered away. Recycling these naval assets brings a high job creation as well as a monetary return from the scrap not dumped into the ocean. [Source: Basel Action Network - Dishonorable Disposal Report. Page 49-50]

  3. Ship sale for reuse - One option for disposing of decommissioned naval ships is the sale of these vessels to friendly governments for reuse. Not only does this extend the useful life of the vessel and bring in money to domestic market, it helps to foster positive relations with allied countries. This disposal method does not entail the release of toxic chemicals from the vessel. [Source: Basel Action Network - Dishonorable Disposal Report. Page 51]

  4. Ship donation - Another alternative for disposal of decommissioned Naval vessels is donation for public display as museums or memorials [see Section 7306 of Title 10 of the United States Code]. This type of disposal has no cost to taxpayers since the recipient of the vessel is responsible for all associated transfer and maintenance costs. [Source: Basel Action Network - Dishonorable Disposal Report, Page 51]

Alternatives to sinking vessels for artificial reefing

Kelp Reforestation

An alternative that is cheap and more proven as being conducive to restoring marine habitats than the artificial reefing of retired ships.  The use of concrete block anchors has been found to be the best method in kelp reforestation.  The blocks used in the building of block walls are cheap, readily accessible, and easy to handle and tie the plants to. The concrete blocks integrate with the substrate without harming the environment.  Kelp reforestation efforts have been previously successful and when the kelp returns other marine life follows. []

Tailored artificial reefs which fit the proper marine niche

Even a poorly constructed artificial reef will serve as a fish aggregating device, but only a carefully planned and constructed artificial reef will actually create sustainable benefits. [see is a big difference between constructing an artificial reef that is tailored to the needs of the ecosystem and merely dumping entire automobiles or vessels into the ocean. Artificial reefs should only be built by fishery experts who can conduct the necessary environmental assessments. It is irresponsible to undertake artificial reef projects with volunteer labor and materials of opportunity because such projects do not adequately address the impact of habitat modifications or the particular needs and vulnerabilities of each affected species. [Source:]

The Japanese have invested over $100 million annually since 1976 in artificial reef creation and research. [See]. They have rejected the use of materials of convenience and scrap metal. Instead, they focus on tailoring the artificial reef ahead of time, using plastic and cement, so that the reef fits the needs to be addressed. Japanese research has shown scrap metal dumping to be ineffective and has identified a number of factors which should be considered when designing a reef for any location.

The factors include:

  1. Number of chambers
  2. Chamber Size
  3. Optimum Reef Size
  4. Substrate
  5. Design
  6. Depth vs. Distance Offshore
  7. Spatial Arrangement/Configuration
  8. Materials/Durability

Examining the majority of successful projects, a number of recommendations are also proposed:

  • Use plastic and cement, not scrap metal
  • Place the artificial reef 600-1000 metres away from natural reefs so as not to draw species away
  • Consider the species you seek to enhance and ensure the reef is specific designed for the purpose
  • Locate the artificial reef on a relatively flat seabed where little or no fish habitat currently exists
  • Locate the reef at a depth of 80 – 120 feet (Note: this is too deep for most divers)
  • Locate the reef where strong ocean currents provide good water exchange [Source:]

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