WHAT IS DOCK FOULING?
Fouling communities are "assemblages" of plants and animals that grow on artificial structures in the water. They are termed "foul" because their growth often creates a nuisance and the communities can harbor invasive species brought by boats. Dock fouling is simply a fouling community that lives on a dock. Most of the organisms in a fouling community are sessile, meaning they are attached to a dock or other artificial structure. These communities are a relatively recent development. The creatures that thrive within them have successfully adapted to live on human made structures (1). "Dock fouling" may also refer to the human activity of exploring dock fouling communities, similar to the term "tide pooling".
WHY SHOULD I CARE ABOUT DOCK FOULING?
Dock fouling communities provide an easy opportunity to look at organisms that would otherwise require a low tide or scuba adventure to observe. Exploring the underside of a dock is a way to experience wilderness within an urban setting. Beyond being fascinating to look at, dock fouling communities provide a window to the local ocean ecosystem health. As they are hotbeds for invasive species, fouling communities can be studied to understand potential threats to native species. Certain types of fouling species can be highly damaging to harbor equipment and boats, which results in great expense to remedy (2).
WHERE CAN I FIND PLACES TO DOCK FOUL?
The easiest places to go dock fouling are floating docks. There are several ways of locating a suitable dock. Most marinas will have floating docks, but not all are open to the public. Public boat ramps are often floating docks. Occasionally water-based public transportation will involve floating docks, such as a water taxi. Another strategy is to search on iNaturalist for the types of organisms that are typically found in fouling communities to see where people are observing them. You can also access the resources on this website for dock fouling locations.
HOW DO I GO DOCK FOULING?
Once you have located a floating dock you can simply go down there, lay on the dock, and look off the edge to observe organisms. There are a few things that you can take to help facilitate your observations. You might be able to capture some images from above the surface with your phone, however having an underwater camera really helps. Bring plastic food containers or bowls along and gently scoop organisms in to them for closer observation. Remember to put them back where you found them in a way they can re-attach, otherwise they risk falling into the abyss! For comfort you can bring knee pads and a towel as dock surfaces can be uncomfortable to lay or knee upon.
WHAT CAN I FIND WHEN I DOCK FOUL?
There is a wide range of observable dock fouling organisms. Worms, mussels, seaweeds, barnacles, shrimp, tunicates, anemones and crabs are very easy to see under most docks. Nudibranchs, or sea slugs can be found by the keen observer. Occasionally sea stars will rest under a dock. Other creatures may be seen passing by, such as jellyfish, seals and a variety of fishes. Having an underwater camera is a useful tool in looking at and identifying animals. Check out iNaturalist observations in your area to see what others are finding. While there is likely not many observations from dock fouling, you might find images from scuba divers who photograph many of the same creatures.
JOIN THE COMMUNITY
Dock fouling isn't a widely known and established hobby...yet. If you live in Washington State or California there are iNaturalist projects that you can contribute to and see what others are finding in your area. Consider starting your own project if you live in a different coastal area. By contributing observations you are adding to the scientific knowledge of the biodiversity of organisms in your area. Who knows, perhaps you will see something that no one else has spotted before!
(1)Benson, P. H., Brining, D. L., & Perrin, D. W. (1973). Marine fouling and its prevention. Marine Technology and SNAME News, 10(01), 30-37.
(2)Unwanted Species: The Fouling Community | Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Retrieved October 6, 2020, from Si.edu website: https://serc.si.edu/labs/marine-invasions-research/feature-story/unwanted-species-fouling-community