From Sunken Ships to Underwater Pyramids, Artificial Reefs Help Alabama Seafood Thrive

Alabama’s artificial reef program spent $1.5 million in 2013 creating man-made habitats to attract new fish species to the Gulf of Mexico and expand existing populations.

From old bridge spans to underwater pyramids to retired military tanks, artificial reefs enhance aquatic habitat and marine resources. They also help conserve, manage and develop fisheries resources. Efforts have resulted in more Red Snapper, Mackerel, and Grouper.

“Without this reef program, Orange Beach wouldn’t have nearly the charter fishing fleet it has now,” said Chris Blankenship, director of the Alabama Marine Resource Division and program administrator for the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission. “It’s really impacted a lot of people and provided economic development to coastal Alabama.”

The science, or art, of reef sinking has gained new fame through “Reef Wranglers,” a Weather Channel show starring David Walter. Walter, who runs Reefmaker with his two sons, got into the artificial reef business in 1986 when Alabama’s reef zone was permitted. Since then, Reefmaker has deployed 35,000 reefs from Texas to Maryland, and will be helping with Alabama’s reef program this summer.

The former boat repairman started by sinking old automobiles, but soon grew to include vans, school buses and cotton pickers. During four episodes of “Reef Wranglers,” Walter sank a helicopter, two airplanes, and an 85-foot shrimp boat. But he doesn’t just deploy reefs; he invents them. Walter now has patents on four types of artificial reefs, with a fifth pending.

Different structures attract different fish, so Reefmaker began by making concrete structures in the shape of underwater pyramids. However, the material wasn’t ideal for mimicking natural reef, so they decided to try Limestone rock made of ancient clamshells or similar soft rock.

Alabama’s program is a cooperative agreement between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Marine Resources Division of the Alabama Deptartment of Conservation and Natural Resources. Alabama is not the only state with an artificial reef program, but it does have one of the most extensive, with more than 1,200 square miles in five offshore zones.

Ben Fairey, captain of the charter boat the Necessity, is a 40-year veteran of the fishing industry. Fairey, who also serves on the board of directors for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, said artificial reefs have proven to be successful.

“It absolutely changed the complete fishery that we have,” he said. “If it wasn’t for artificial reefs, we wouldn’t have near the fish we have. It’s an economic boom and also a conservation effort that we provide habitat and grow a lot of juvenile fish. It’s been a win for everybody.”

Around 240 small pyramids were sunk in an artificial reef zone within three miles of the shore known as a near shore reef area, Blankenship said. There were also 30 large pyramids, each 25 feet in size. When put together in twos or threes, the pyramids resemble the size of a larger vessel.