How a sunken jet could promote biodiversity

A retired A300 airbus is getting a new mission under the Aegean Sea in hopes of reviving a coral reef – and tourism, after a series of terrorist attacks in Istanbul. 

David Bellwood/ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies/AP
A coral reef in Australia showing telltale signs of bleaching, one of the plights of coral today. The artificial reef is one solution to the decrease of the world's coral.

Hundreds of on-lookers gathered to watch as divers and cranes carefully handled an 177-foot long A300 airbus jet submerged in the Aegean Sea on Saturday. But the crew was not pulling the jet out of the water. Rather they were charged with lowering the plane 75 feet down onto the seafloor, in the hopes of making it an oceanic oasis to draw fish, sea plants, and scuba divers.

The airbus-cum-reef was planted off the coast of the Turkish town Kuşadası, where local officials are hoping to increase scuba diving–related tourism. Diving activities are already a part of the resort and port-of-call town's tourism roster, which also includes a marina, a seaside promenade, and proximity to Byzantine ruins. 

"Our goal is to make Kuşadası a center of diving tourism," Özlem Çerçioğlu, mayor of the Aydin province where Kuşadası is located, told reporters. "Our goal is to protect the underwater life. And with these goals in mind, we have witnessed one of the biggest wrecks in the world."

Her administration purchased the plane for about $93,000. 

The use of man-made materials to create artificial reefs, where aquatic life can form and congregate, is a tactic that has been used throughout the world. These reefs are often constructed to replace ecosystems that are struggling in the face of vanishing coral reefs, or to bolster human pursuits like sport fishing and scuba diving.

Artificial reef technology has been around long enough to have its learning curves. One early experiment, for example, the 1972 Osbourne Tire Reef off the coast of Florida, infamously ended with tires breaking loose and lodging into natural coral reefs nearby, inhibiting their growth.

Now the concept has been implemented throughout the world, from Florida to Australia. California has a robust chain of artificial reefs up and down the coast, using quarry rock, cars, a streetcar, ships, and barges, to name a few materials. Turkey has reportedly already dropped several planes in the Aegean Sea, for the purpose of stimulating an ecosystem and improving biodiversity, thus upping scuba diving appeal.

Natural coral reefs have been in decline in recent years, due both to long terms trends and shorter-term weather patterns. Established ecosystems are negatively impacted by the loss of coral, a phenomenon that has been seen in Mediterranean-area waters, in addition to more well-known cases like Australia's Great Barrier Reef. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, 25 percent of the world's coral reefs are damaged beyond repair, while an additional two-thirds are seriously threatened. 

And while artificial reef projects across the world have seen success in creating flourishing underwater zones teeming with life, the recreational activities that they are sometimes constructed to support are the same factors that the World Wildlife Fund points to as diminishing natural reefs: namely, tourism and certain fishing practices. 

In Turkey, however, officials are looking forward to the economic boost that they hope for, amidst a tourism industry struggling to survive safety concerns after a series of terrorist bombings in Istanbul last year. Ms. Çerçioğlu told Turkey's Daily Sabah that she expects about 250,000 diving tourists per year to visit the new reef, along with an increase in underwater biodiversity. 

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