The United States Coast Guard utilizes navigational buoys to direct water traffic as well as to protect vulnerable benthic ecosystems such as seagrass communities and coral reefs in U.S. waters.
The benthic zone is the ecological region at the lowest level of a body of water such as an ocean or a lake, including the sediment surface and some sub-surface layers.
Organisms living in this zone are called benthos, e.g. the benthic invertebrate community, including crustaceans and polychaetes.
Currently, most buoys are attached to the seafloor by concrete anchors (called sinkers), by heavy metal chains that can have just as significant an impact on marine life themselves.
Sinkers can cause significant damage life on the seafloor under their heavy footprint, and when the connecting chains are lax, they can scrape off seagrasses, seaweeds and corals around the sinkers as waves and wind push the buoys around.
Looking for a solution
The Coast Guard has been struggling to find a solution for more than 20 years, and about two years ago, the service reached out to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) for help.
Subsequently, S&T organized a prize competition in January 2016.
In addition to receiving proposals from across the country, S&T received several proposals from the international community, even though they weren’t eligible to receive a cash prize under the America COMPETES Act.
From among the proposals, S&T found a potential solution to the problem in a simple, but effective, buoy mooring system.
Instead of a concrete sinker, Cole Keaoulu Santos, an innovator from Hawaii, proposed a narrow screw anchor; and in place of a heavy metal chain, he suggested an elastic rope to prevent scraping of the ocean floor.
“We consider DHS S&T a key partner to introducing technology and innovation into the Coast Guard,” explained Bert Macesker, Executive Director at Research and Development Center (RDC).
“Leveraging the DHS public prize competitions allows us to more effectively reach out to the public and their good ideas to help address Coast Guard challenges,” said Bert Macesker, Executive Director at Research and Development Center (RDC).
“Building on the success of this environmentally-friendly buoy mooring effort, we are launching our second public prize competition with DHS S&T to enhance the detection of persons in the water.”
(Learn More about the Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC), from Bert Macesker, Executive Director. Courtesy of Defense & Aerospace Report and YouTube. Posted on May 26, 2017)
Testing different types of mooring systems
In April, the RDC embarked on a two-year experiment to test several different types of mooring systems, inspired by Santo’s concepts.
The RDC, using U.S. Coast Guard cutter Joshua Appleby, a 175-foot Keeper Class coastal buoy tender, deployed five buoy mooring systems near the coast of St. Petersburg, Florida.
There, the buoys’ impact on the ocean floor and ability to withstand the elements while staying securely moored will be evaluated.
The results will determine if the moorings are fit to be adopted on a broader scale.
“The Coast Guard, as marine environmental stewards, wanted the RDC to research minimally invasive methods for anchoring and mooring marker buoys in environmentally sensitive areas,” said James Fletcher, Chief of RDC’s Environment and Waterways Branch; one of the Branch’s missions is environmental protection.
Coral reefs and seagrasses are among the most biologically diverse ocean ecosystems; they provide important habitat for marine life – manatees, sea turtles and a variety of fish and invertebrates and an environmentally sensitive mooring system can help preserve these ecosystems.
The reason for testing different types of mooring systems is to find the most durable and efficient one.
The Coast Guard decided to install two types of anchors at water depths of 38 to 48 feet—the traditional concrete sinker and the helix (screw).
Three types of mooring lines are being used – StormSoft, Hazelett and Supflex.
“RDC researchers deployed different combinations and mooring lines to evaluate a wide array of potential solutions,” said Danielle Elam who is a project manager at the Environment and Waterways Branch.
“Instead of building a whole new system, maybe we could just change the mooring line. If this works, it might save us money, it might save us time.”
“Or we may need to change the entire system.”
Using helical anchors and elastic mooring lines is not new.
Recreational boaters have been using the concept, called eco-mooring, for some time.
(New potential buoy systems could help protect ocean floor ecosystems from heavy buoy chains and anchors currently in use. Courtesy of DHS Science and Technology Directorate and YouTube. Posted on Apr 30, 2018)