The Environmental Intervention That Backfired

Coral reefs are an important part of our oceans’ ecosystems, but as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes, many are at risk of dying out. This isn’t a new problem, either. For decades, scientists have taken many steps to help stem reef loss and reverse it, to varying success. For example, ecologists have grown new coral and cemented them into the ocean floor, considered freezing coral and reimplanting them when conditions improve, and, as previously noted in these pages,

And then there’s the Osborne Reef.

Its claim to fame? It made things worse. Much worse.

Fisherman, it should go without saying, like to fish. And to be successful in that endeavor, they need to either go to where the fish are or attract the fish to where they want the fish to be. And really, the latter solution is the better one — it’s less work for you to fish where you are than to go on a voyage. In the 1970s, though, fishermen near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, found that avenue less and less profitable; the area’s natural coral reefs were dying and the fish that normally visited those reefs weren’t coming back. But then, some of them had an idea, as seen below.

Yep: They decided to throw a lot of automobile tires in the water.

The idea wasn’t their own, to be fair. In the preceding few years, a number of places around the world had done something similar, with a seemingly positive effect. Tires, once their treads are worn, aren’t useful (and, in fact, can be unsafe to drive on), but also aren’t the easiest thing to get rid of. Typically, and especially at the time, used tires sat around in junkyards and garbage dumps, taking up space and providing no ongoing value. To make matters worse, tires are flammable and, when ablaze, emit toxic fumes. It wasn’t uncommon for tires, piled up in dumps, to catch on fire and burn for days. Dumping them in the ocean would solve that problem, but no one wanted to pollute the waterways, too. Until someone — it’s unclear who was first — postulated that discarded tires could function as artificial reefs. It was a win-win situation — and one that seemed to make sense. Small reefs made of discarded tires were created in multiple places throughout the world.

In 1972, the aforementioned group of fishermen formed Broward Artificial Reef, Inc. (“BARINC”) in hopes of creating the world’s largest tire reef off Fort Lauderdale’s coast. The company’s plans were ambitious: they wanted to dump millions of tires over the equivalent of about 30 football fields. For two years, the local environmental agencies partnered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate the project, and in 1974, BARINC got the green light to proceed. The effort to protect the environment both on and at sea proved popular: dozens if not hundreds of shipowners volunteered to help bring the tires to the drop site, and according to Yahoo! News, the Goodyear tire company even donated a gold-painted tire from their namesake blimp to commemorate the efforts. 

But over time, the reef turned into a disaster.

To start with, the tires failed to attract a meaningful number of fish. But that would have been a disappointment, not a disaster. The tires, when dumped into the ocean, weren’t thrown in one at a time; in order to keep them from floating around the ocean, they were tied together using a mix of nylon and steel. But those ties weren’t tested in the salty seawater of the Atlantic Ocean, and over the years, they corroded and broke. The tires, now loose, floated around the ocean haphazardly, causing the type of harm they were supposed to remediate. USA Today explained: “Thousands have wedged up against a nearby natural reef, blocking coral growth and devastating marine life.”

The tires needed to be retrieved, but getting as many as two million tires out of the water is a lot, lot harder than getting them into the water. Initial efforts proved expensive and slow, and little headway was made until 2007. That year, the military got involved. The Army, Navy, and Coast Guard all train divers to do diver-like things, and retrieving objects from the bottom of the ocean is one of those things. Two million or so tires are definitely “things,” so, as NPR reported, the military agreed “to use it as a training exercise, donating the time and expertise of its divers” to help bring some of the tires back to shore.

That helped a lot, but it didn’t solve the problem. As of late 2023, there are still an estimated 500,000 tires out in the water outside Fort Lauderdale, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection believes the cleanup will take until early 2028 at the earliest — and likely much longer. The good news? You can help solve the problem. The most effective solution in recent years has been to bring tires back to shore and turn them into bracelets, the proceeds of which are used to help solve the problem. You can buy one here for about $35, and each purchase goes toward recovering five pounds of trash from our shared waterways.

Bonus fact: As noted above, it’s not uncommon for tire fires to rage for days. And that’s if everything goes right. In 1984, a pile of about four million tires caught fire in Everett, Washington, and while “the fire chief thought they’d have it out by the end of the day — a week, tops” per local press, “it smoldered for months” and ultimately required a two-decade, multimillion-dollar cleanup effort. And that’s hardly the worst example. In 1989, a pile of ten million tires caught flame in Wales, and as the Guardian noted, it was still raging 13 years later (and ultimately burned for 15). Even “smaller” fires look apocalyptic; here’s an example of one from Kuwait in 2012.

From the Archives: How to Recycle Thousands of Tons of Military-Grade Metal: Meet the Great Carrier Reef. (That’s not a typo.)