A comprehensive literature review is undertaken of global artificial reefs, their design, application and management. The majority of papers are linked to North American research, reefs constructed from concrete and to the general theme of fisheries ecology and management. Within the review, the main area highlighted for consideration in future research and management is the design and complexity of artificial reefs. A more limited case study review identifies monitoring and management as crucial factors, noting a significant lack of information relating to ownership, liability, regulation, user conflict, environmental assessment and long-term management goals. An assessment of reef performance indicates that only 50% of the case studies meet their objectives, the remainder having no, little or limited success. Questions are therefore raised regarding their value. It is concluded that although artificial reefs do have the potential to fulfil the many objectives for which they are promoted, their success will ultimately reflect the quality of prior planning and ongoing management that is afforded them. © 2001 Elsevier Science Ltd.