Already the largest in the nation if not the world, Alabama’s artificial reef zones recently got even larger with the addition of 110 square miles of Gulf of Mexico bottom.
As part of an overall $8.135 million expansion of the Alabama Artificial Reef Program, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Marine Resources Division (MRD) recently received authorization of two additional permit areas from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Craig Newton, MRD’s Artificial Reef Coordinator, said the grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, established with criminal fines after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, will also allow MRD to deploy artificial reefs in both nearshore and offshore reef zones.
“We have expanded the 6- to 9-mile reef zone,” Newton said. “Originally, we had about 30 square miles in that reef zone. We’re expanding by 23 square miles near Gulf Shores and Fort Morgan and another 24-square-mile area offshore of Orange Beach that is between 8 and 15 miles offshore.”
The largest of the new reef zones is between 13 and 25 miles south of Dauphin Island and adds 63 square miles for the 110-square-mile total of new water bottom for constructing artificial reefs.
The approval of the new zones was a lengthy, comprehensive process to ensure historical resources and artifacts were not impacted by the new reef zones. The cost associated with the permitting process was $742,000.
“We had to do bottom surveys that were required by the National Historical Preservation Act to ensure that cultural resources are not compromised,” Newton said. “These cultural resources could be shipwrecks, Civil War artifacts and areas that early inhabitants used as campsites or mounds thousands of years ago. During eras of sea level transgressions, water bottoms near the Alabama coast would have been exposed. The sub-bottom profiler (scanning equipment) data actually identifies natural levees of bayous, rivers and creek banks where early inhabitants would have made campsites and used for hunting grounds thousands of years ago. The surveys identified a handful of areas we have to avoid, but generally didn’t find anything of cultural significance. Ultimately, it resulted in 110 square miles of water bottom being authorized by the Corps of Engineers.”
With permits in hand and contracts executed, MRD started deploying artificial reefs in the new reef zones on July 30, 2021.
Newton said in the 6- to 9-mile reef zones a total of 1,203 juvenile reef fish shelters will be deployed at numerous locations with 3 to 10 shelters per reef site as part of a $2.4 million contract. The modules are 4.5-foot-diameter concrete discs placed on a pedestal and embedded in a concrete slab. Each module will have four discs.
“Our monitoring and research have shown that these type modules are extremely effective for providing habitat for juvenile reef fish, particularly gray triggerfish,” he said. “Young red snapper, gray snapper and lane snapper will also use these structures. Since we have been deploying a significant amount of adult-size reef structures, we felt that adding these juvenile structures will help facilitate the recruitment of juveniles to the larger reefs farther offshore. It increases the juvenile reef fish habitat that we have offshore of Alabama.”
Speaking of the larger offshore reefs, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Commissioner Chris Blankenship executed a $4.9 million contract to deploy 456 pyramid-shaped modules, each 25 feet tall and made of concrete and limestone. At the new reef zone south of Dauphin Island, 164 modules will be used to create 123 reefs. Some of the reef sites will have two modules and others a single module.
In the 24-square-mile zone off Orange Beach, 64 of the pyramids will be used to create 48 reef sites.
Farther offshore, 35 miles and beyond, 228 pyramid modules will be used to create 172 new reef sites. At those offshore sites, the 25-foot-tall pyramids will be deployed in single and double models as well as providing additional structure to existing small pyramids that were deployed in 2004 and 2005.
GPS coordinates for the new reef sites will be published this fall after all the reefs have been deployed.
“Generally, a wide variety of reef fish will be utilizing the larger pyramids,” Newton said. “Farther offshore, these structures will provide quality habitat for not only red snapper but also amberjack, vermillion snapper and groupers too. The juvenile reefs will help provide a connective link between the fish utilizing the inshore habitat and the fish moving to the offshore habitat. One example is flounder that migrate to the Gulf each year for spawning purposes. These nearshore reefs will provide habitat during their spawning season. They will also provide a type of stepping-stone habitat for gray snapper as they move offshore. Juvenile gray snapper use inshore habitat like docks and inshore reefs in the estuaries, and then they move into the Gulf of Mexico for their adult life. These nearshore reefs will provide refuge to help them more effectively recruit to larger reefs offshore.”
Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon said, “I am very proud of the work that Craig and his staff have done to enhance fish habitat and angling opportunities off the coast of Alabama. They have put in a tremendous amount of time and effort to develop a balanced plan that addresses habitat from fish spawning through adulthood, from inshore to offshore, that will benefit the resources and fishermen for years to come.”
Commissioner Blankenship said he constantly brags about Alabama’s Artificial Reef Program and the new project is just going to make it better.
“I am glad to see the reef areas expanded and the deployment of several hundred new offshore and nearshore artificial reefs,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “We already have the best artificial reef program in the country, but we are not resting on our laurels. With the expansion of the reef zones and the new reefs we are building, we will ensure continued great fishing off the coast of Alabama for decades to come. I appreciate the partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to assist in funding the multimillion-dollar construction of these reefs. The fishing this year has been great when the weather has allowed for boats to get out and enjoy it. Red snapper fishing is always great, but the last two years have really seen the resurgence of gray triggerfish. Since the triggerfish season reopened August 1, I have seen some great ‘trash can’ size triggerfish photos on Facebook of fish harvested in the Alabama Artificial Reef Zones. Triggerfish is right up there with cobia as the best-tasting fish in the Gulf, in my opinion. I hope to get down to Dauphin Island and catch some this weekend. With greater amberjack, red snapper and triggerfish seasons all open right now, it is a great time to wet a hook on some of the productive reefs off the coast of Alabama.”
With the additional 110 square miles, the Alabama Artificial Reef Program now encompasses more than 1,136 square miles of water bottom in the Gulf. More information about the Alabama Artificial Reef Program and coordinates for the reefs can be found by clicking here: Artificial Reefs | Outdoor Alabama
David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.