Celeste Gracia / WUNC

NC - New 3D printed artificial reef offers flexible design, more benefits for fish

It's a muggy, humid morning in Bath, North Carolina in late May.

A barge is out in the middle of the Pamlico River near Bath Creek, carrying 100 concrete cubes that will make up a new artificial reef. These cubes are made from 3D printing, the first of their kind in North Carolina.

Two crew members carefully hook the cubes onto a crane one by one, and the crane slowly lowers it into the water.

"We want to have healthy fisheries in North Carolina. Our mission is to help build a sustainable growing fish population for generations," said David Sneed, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina. "(To start), you have to have a healthy habitat for the fish to grow and reproduce in. That's what these artificial reefs provide."

Artificial reefs are manmade structures that mimic the characteristics of a natural reef. There are approximately 43 ocean artificial reefs and 25 estuarine reefs in North Carolina. State officials strategically place artificial reefs in areas that didn’t previously have reefs. This helps provide refuge for fish and increase fish populations.

The reef cubes deployed in May in the Pamlico Sound were designed specifically to help regionally important species, including striped bass and speckled trout.

The cubes are 3-by-3 feet. There are two rectangular holes on five sides of the cube for fish to swim through. Each cube weighs about 20 pounds and is spaced out 10 feet apart underwater.

Using 3D printing for artificial reefs offers unique advantages compared to using traditional materials.

The biggest benefit is that it allows state officials to customize reef structure and size based on the specific needs of the environment.

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