Dalhousie grad develops artificial reefs that could help save Nova Scotia's ocean ecosystems

·3 min read
Two scuba divers work with slabs of Oceanite, which is designed to restore coastal ecosystems that have been damaged by underwater construction. (Ian Kellett, OceanX - image credit)
Two scuba divers work with slabs of Oceanite, which is designed to restore coastal ecosystems that have been damaged by underwater construction. (Ian Kellett, OceanX - image credit)

A Dalhousie University graduate who helped create a new type of artificial reef that has been used to save ocean ecosystems is bringing that technology to Nova Scotia waters.

Emily Higgins, who grew up in Atlantic Canada, received a master of science in biology at Dalhousie University in 2019, where she assessed man-made structures and their efficacy for conservation.

She worked to determine how successful artificial reefs can be and how they can be used to repair damaged ocean habitats.

That research is what drew IntelliReefs, a U.S.-based company that develops sustainable marine solutions, to recruit Higgins last year.

Submitted by Emily Higgins
Submitted by Emily Higgins

"My position now really is a direct continuation of that work," Higgins told CBC Radio's Mainstreet on Thursday.

"Understanding how we can use man-made structures to enhance conservation, what their limitations might be, and how to incorporate people's conservation goals and economic goals in order to make them more successful for the communities that rely on them."

Higgins is now the director of Ocean Science with IntelliReefs and the Reef Life Foundation.

She helped a team of scientists develop the artificial reefs using nanotechnology. The reefs are made of a material called Oceanite, which is designed to restore coastal communities that have been damaged by underwater construction.

Higgins said most concrete used in this construction is held together with toxic binding agents that can damage local ecosystems and "burn the scales right off of the fish, which is a horrifying revelation."

"What we do is we use DNA encapsulation techniques to bind natural geological materials and minerals together, rather than using these toxic binders," she said.

"It's a completely novel way of thinking about underwater construction while still being able to hit the engineering specifications of infrastructure projects like harbours, like jetties."

Higgins said the materials for the Oceanite are sourced from each location and are later shaped into large rectangular slabs that stack on top of one another on the ocean floor.

The artificial reefs replace the previously damaged ecosystems and create a safe environment for marine species to thrive.

Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern, The Sint Maarten Nature Foundation
Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern, The Sint Maarten Nature Foundation

IntelliReefs has already tested the artificial reefs in Sint Maarten in the Caribbean.

Higgins said during a three-year study, the company has seen 100 per cent coverage of biological organisms after only 14 months, and the artificial reefs have been found to foster more biodiversity than nearby natural reefs.

1st time reefs will be used in Canada

Higgins is confident she will see similar results in the waters off Nova Scotia.

According to a 2016 study by Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia has lost 85 to 99 per cent of its kelp forest biomass over the past 60 years, which has put local fisheries and livelihoods at risk.

Earlier this summer, the Canadian branch of IntelliReefs opened a new office at the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship in Dartmouth, N.S.

The new office will allow Higgins, who co-founded the branch, and her team to kick off "a coastal resilience and habitat restoration project in the Halifax harbour."

This will be the first time the artificial reefs will be used in Canadian waters.

Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern, The Sint Maarten Nature Foundation
Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern, The Sint Maarten Nature Foundation

"In Nova Scotia, we're very concerned with preventing erosion and property protection through the provision of natural barriers," she said.

"So if you are a property owner, if you are a property developer, or if you're simply maintaining existing infrastructure, we would like to come in and create living, sustainable 'blue barrier' systems that actually require less maintenance."

Higgins said she hopes to work with coastal developers across the country to incorporate these reefs and repair marine ecosystems.

The artificial reefs will be deployed in the Halifax harbour in October.

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