By Izzy Wallace
Photos courtesy James Trask, Washington Scuba Alliance

Several programs and concerned people are teaming up to remove dangerous and harmful tire reefs from Washington’s waters.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Washington Department of Ecology, and the Washington Scuba Alliance are all involved in a team effort to remove tire reefs from bodies of water around the state.

These groups are in the process of carrying out a huge task – creating and executing a project to remove tire reefs, some that are made up of more than 20,000 tires, from waters in Washington state.

Local programs, people band together to save Puget Sound from harmful tire reefs 1

Removed tire reefs sit on a barge in Puget Sound.

Tire reefs are a type of artificial reef that are placed in water, and were originally created to encourage marine life to the area.

Artificial reefs can be made up of other materials as well, such as rock, concrete, and PVC (polyvinyl chloride).

Initially, tire reefs were thought to help out aquatic wildlife.

Local tire reefs were first used through the Washington Department of Fisheries in the 1970s, to help bring in more fish and wildlife around piers.

Local programs, people band together to save Puget Sound from harmful tire reefs 2

Tire reefs often release small bits of rubber, plastics, and metals into water, that are toxic to sea creatures.

“There was this demand to build fishing piers, so they built them in Seattle, Tacoma, Edmonds,” said Monica Shoemaker, restoration manager for the Aquatic Restoration Program, a sector of the DNR. “They developed the idea of creating these artificial reefs that would be adjacent to the piers that would help provide a continuous fishery for people fishing off of them. So that’s why some of those reefs were developed.”

“We have around 13 sites that we want to focus on, that are on state land,” Shoemaker said.

“The tire bundles are bound with synthetic rope. And that rope over time, breaks,” Shoemaker said. “One of our biggest concerns we are finding is that they’re breaking. So instead of having these contained bundles, they’re breaking apart and will spread single tires around.”

“You can take a picture, and the app logs it and it sends it to us, so we have it on our inventory, and this information helps us plan cleanup projects,” Shoemaker said.

Tires often release small bits of rubber, plastics, and metals into water, that are toxic to sea creatures.

“This release of chemicals within the rubber, do in fact, take away from the lifespan, and do damage to the young fry, fish, and eggs that are in those streams,” said Randy Williams, a member of the Washington Scuba Alliance. “This stuff exudes micro-chemicals, and it’s at such a low level, that to detect it was almost impossible. But due to better technology and chemical analysis, it’s now known to be there, and there’s no doubt about it.”

There are now various sites scattered across the state, where a majority of the tire reefs are thought, and in some cases confirmed, to be.

“We have at least around 13 sites that we want to focus on, that are on state land,” Shoemaker said.

In addition to this, the way these tire reefs were formed was not secure enough to hold the tires together for years on end.

“They [have been] bound with this synthetic rope. And that rope you know, over time, breaks,” Shoemaker said. “So, one of our biggest concerns we are finding, is that they’re breaking. So instead of having these contained bundles, they’re breaking apart and will spread single tires around.”

Loose tires are much more difficult to find and pull up than the bundled tire reefs, she said.

Because of this, there are tens of thousands of rubber tires in Washington, hidden below the water’s surface.

So, these groups are doing something about it.

Local programs, people band together to save Puget Sound from harmful tire reefs 3

Tire reefs were originally created to encourage marine life to the area.

“The Public Participation Program granted an award to the Scuba Alliance, to do mapping, to survey the Puget Sound area, and map current tires in the Sound,” said Faith Wimberley, Public Participation Grant Program manager. “And then educate the public through various public presentation about the tires in the Puget Sound.”

This program is managed by the Department of Ecology for the state of Washington.

The Scuba Alliance had joined on, when their president saw this project happening, and wanted to take part.

“The president of the Washington Scuba Alliance at the time, wanted to take it on as a project,” said James Trask, a member of the Washington Scuba Alliance. “He started looking around Puget Sound, and got some of his buddies and Coastal Sensing and Surveys involved, trying to figure out how to go about finding these tires.”

Coastal Sensing and Surveys is a company, that has assisted the Scuba Alliance on the technology side of scuba recovery.

“Ben Griner, [the] owner of Coastal Sensing and Surveying, has been instrumental in us being able to do the work so far,” Trask said.

Griner contracts out to the Washington Scuba Alliance, and has helped with scanning and locating tires throughout this project, Williams said.

“Washington Scuba Alliance has the contract from the Department of Ecology, and Ben contracts to the Washington Scuba Alliance,” Williams added.

Local programs, people band together to save Puget Sound from harmful tire reefs 4

The Scuba Alliance’s history of helping with underwater cleanup, restoration, and creating sustainable reefs in the northwest, made them the perfect group to join on.

If you appreciate our independent local journalism, please…

The current effort is to better understand how many tires there are, where they are, and what’s the best way of removing them, Wimberely said.

“Right now we’re in the process of trying to finalize our report, to really come up with some good numbers and understand the footprint of how large these sites are, and in what conditions,” Shoemaker said. “Which sites are starting to break apart, which sites are still looking okay.”

There has been an old map passed around through the years, where people have thought tire reefs might be in Puget Sound. However, DNR, Ecology, and The Scuba Alliance have all been contributing to an updated map, that further elaborates on tire bundle locations and their details, Shoemaker said.

“We had that [the old map], but there wasn’t any detailed information about their precise location, or really anything else about it, like how many are out there, how large the reefs are, that kind of information,” Shoemaker said. “So we kind of had to just go out with an estimate of where we thought these might be.”

“Across these different groups, we will have a really comprehensive look at where the tires are across the Puget Sound,” Wimberley said.

And once there’s a clearer picture of where these tires are, the Scuba Alliance is hoping to transfer funding that was previously approved by the state for a similar project, to help jumpstart the tire reef removal.

Local programs, people band together to save Puget Sound from harmful tire reefs 5

Removing tire reefs is a team effort that includes support staff on board boats working with divers underwater.

“We had some funding, but things got delayed due to the pandemic and other issues, and some butting up against a time delay,” said Williams. “But if we can convince the state to let us use the money for this, we’ll move it off the original project, and use that funding that was earmarked for a similar, but necessary underwater project, for this one.”

Trask and Williams explained that the funding for these projects would go towards tire removal in the Redondo area, as this is where the original funded project was focused on.

The two Scuba Alliance members said that they are in the process of getting approval for more future tire removal sites, through contacting local officials, city councilmembers, and spreading awareness of the issue as a whole.

One way they’re doing this, is by sponsoring the beer and wine festival portion of the Des Moines Summer Concert Series. Here, they’ll have an information booth regarding this project.

“We’re going to bring up some of these old tires, and we’re going to put them on display. We’re going to show our videos, pictures, and documentation, showing what we’re working on,” Williams said.

You can visit their booth at this series, which will run Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. from July to August, at the Des Moines Beach Park Event Center.

Local programs, people band together to save Puget Sound from harmful tire reefs 6

Through mapping, documenting, funding and developing, the DNR, Ecology, and Scuba Alliance hope to move this project forward, and move more toxic tires out of the water.

And while the project is still in the logistics phase, there is a way everyone can do their part to help.

An app called My Coast Washington is used to gather data and inform the DNR about any local debris. Debris can include loose tires, trash, fishing gear, and anything else that’s found washed up on the shorelines, that shouldn’t be there.

“You can take a picture, and it logs it and it sends it to us, so we can have it on our inventory and knowing how to plan a project in that area,” Shoemaker said.

VIDEOS
Below are videos that show tire reefs in the south King County area:

If you’d like to read up about Washington’s aquatic land, visit DNR’s aquatics page.

To learn more about or support the Washington Scuba Alliance’s aquatic clean up projects, visit https://www.wascuba.org/cleanups.

To read about Washington’s water quality and supply, preservation, and local aquatic wildlife, go to Ecology’s water and shorelines page at https://ecology.wa.gov/Water-Shorelines.

Izzy Wallace is a graduate from Highline College, where she got her AA in Multimedia, and her BAS in Integrated Design. She had previously worked at Highline’s newspaper for several years as Editor-in-Chief. You can send her ideas for news stories, or photos of your dogs, at [email protected].