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Alabama artificial reef program.

The natural bottom offshore Alabama is predominately flat sand, gravel and mud. This bottom type attracts very few fish that are either commercially or recreationally valuable. However, it has long been known that if vertical relief is created on this bottom, many reef fish such as snappers and groupers will be attracted (Shipp personal comm.). Shortly after the Second World War, local charter boat captains and commercial fishermen discovered that they could catch valuable reef fish at locations where artificial structures (ships, planes, etc.) had accidentally found their way into the Gulf of Mexico. It did not take them long to equate bottom structure with reef fish and make the transition from finding material to placing material on the bottom. In the early 1950s the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources was approached and asked if they would deploy car bodies to act as artificial reefs. The department agreed, and thus the Alabama artificial reef program began. This proved to be very successful and in the years since, many different types of materials have been placed offshore of Alabama. These have included additional car bodies, culverts, bridge rubble, barges, boats and planes. In 1974-75, in an excellent example of State/Federal cooperation, several "ghost-fleeted" liberty ships were sunk in five locations off Mobile and Baldwin Counties in 80-93 feet of water.

In 1987 a general permit was issued by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers creating specific areas offshore of Alabama for the creation of artificial reefs. These were created to provide areas for these materials in order to coordinate with other users of the offshore area. In 1987 the areas encompassed almost 800 square miles.

REEF--EX is the program name associated with the concept of deploying obsolete military combat tanks in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean as artificial reefs. In 1993 the U.S. military, in addressing the need to de-militarize obsolete battle tanks, realized that immersion in seawater was an acceptable method to render the tank inoperable. The idea of using these obsolete military materials to create artificial reefs was born. The idea was presented to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Marine Resources Division, and development of an operation plan began. As plans developed, the full extent of the impact that this program would have on the reef fisheries and associated Between June 1994 and September 1994, 100 military combat tanks were deployed in the general permit area off of Alabama. The tanks had been inspected to ensure that no environmental threat was posed to the Gulf of Mexico. All hazardous materials were removed, including all oils, hydraulic fluids and other fuel. All military hardware such as munitions and radioactive materials were also taken from the tanks. All other EPA requirements were met, as well as other various agency requirements described. These 100 tanks sit in depths of 70 to 110 feet of water within the Hugh Swingle and Don Kelley North artificial reef areas. This makes them easily accessible to scuba divers as well as fishermen.

The conservative estimate for the life span of the tanks is 50 years as artificial reefs. The potential economic impact of these tanks as artificial reefs during this time is millions of dollars. Even this conservative estimate far outweighs any other method of removing these tanks from military service. It is an outstanding and creative way to convert swords into plowshares.

In late 1997 the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers authorized an expansion of Alabama's artificial reef construction areas to allow for greeter freedom in reef placement and greater variety in depth. The combined area for all reef permit zones now encompasses approximately 1260 square miles. At the same time, the protocol for reef construction was modified. This modification limited the types of materials that can be used to construct artificial reefs. Enforcement of the protocol and placement of reefs is a joint effort of the Marine Resources enforcement section, the Alabama Marine Police Division, and the U. S. Coast Guard.

Because of the artificial reefs offshore of Alabama, fishermen now catch 35-40% of the recreationally caught red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico (Schirripa, 1998). Considering Alabama's shoreline constitutes approximately 5% of the northern Gulf of Mexico, that is an incredible statistic. Data collected from the video/trap set portion of the Southeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Project (SEAMAP) show that during the period of 1993-96, Alabama conducted an average of 5% of the sets, but in contrast captured 91% of the red snapper Gulfwide. Other reef fishes including grouper, amberjack, triggerfish, vermillion snapper, and lane snapper are now caught because of the reefs. As the program has developed, the fishing industry has expanded. Currently there are 143 charter boats in Alabama that fish in the Gulf waters. The vast majority, 90% plus, bottom fish for red snapper as their primary target species. It has been estimated that the charter industry generates approximately 60 million dollars in revenue annually (Malone, 1994). The private recreational sector has not been directly estimated, but it would appear to be just as lucrative, if not more so, than the charter industry. A survey conducted in 1996 (Thomas, 1996) to define the saltwater freshwater split in the allocation of federal sport-fish monies included questions on the target species. It was expected that an inshore species such as spotted sea trout or red drum would rank first, but red snapper was the number l-targeted fish for Alabama saltwater fishermen. The survey also pointed out that this was not just a coastal phenomenon. The survey reported that of the people that fished in upstate Birmingham, 33% fished in saltwater.

In 1996 we realized there was a need for artificial reefs within Alabama's inshore waters to provide fishing opportunities for fishermen who preferred to fish these areas. Therefore, when bridge rubble from the replacement of several coastal river bridges became available as reef material, the division personnel began to examine possible sites.

The first two sites developed into inshore artificial fishing reefs were at the derelict Fish River oyster reef and the old Shellbank oyster reef. Concrete bridge pilings and rubble were deployed in a roughly circular ring on the hard substrate of the historic reefs. The reefs were completed by placing cultch material inside the rings to promote the creation of a natural oyster reef community.

In 1998 a similar reef was constructed on the western side of Mobile Bay on the remnants of Whitehouse oyster reef. Oyster cultch material was placed within the interior of this reef in August of 1998, completing the largest inshore artificial reef to date in Alabama's inshore waters with an area of approximately 75 acres and a mile in circumference.

Plans are to continue to expand this program of inshore artificial fishing reefs. The Division was recently offered concrete culvert as artificial reef material. Working with local conservation groups, commercial shrimp fishermen, and Mobile County, the division plans to create additional inshore reefs in the next couple of years.

R. Vernon Minton

Alabama Department of Conservation and

Natural Resources

Marine Resources Division

Gulf Shores, AL
COPYRIGHT 2002 Alabama Academy of Science
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Author:Minton, R. Vernon
Publication:Journal of the Alabama Academy of Science
Geographic Code:1U6AL
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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