07.30.2015

Oyster-Shell Reefs Spur Economic Benefit in Coastal Alabama Waters

Scattered across Mobile Bay, Mississippi Sound and Perdido Bay are 27 artificial reefs that are attracting more fish and more tourists to the inshore waters of Alabama.

Made predominantly of oyster shells and gabion stone, inshore artificial reefs – used to attract species such as spotted sea trout, flounder and crab – can also be made of concrete and sediment material, according to Dr. Robert Shipp. Shipp, a professor of marine sciences at the University of South Alabama and a member of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, has been working with and studying artificial reefs since the 1970s. He said inshore reefs of an artificial nature are a “no brainer” and “a slam dunk” for the waters.

“When you create habitat for certain species, obviously the amount of the species increases,” he said.

According to the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Alabama has one of the largest artificial reef programs in the U.S. The program, which began in 1953, started when the Orange Beach Charter Boat Association asked if it could put 250 car bodies in waters off the coast of Baldwin County. It proved successful and has grown larger and larger since. The inshore reef program began in 1996, when Marine Resources Division realized a need for artificial reef within the state’s inshore waters.

This spring and summer, Alabama is spending $1.5 million on man-made habitats. The artificial reefs–come in the form of bridge spans, underwater pyramids, platforms or retired military tanks –offer impressive benefits. And just a few weeks ago, a 271-foot Dutch cargo ship was sunk off the coast to become a new diving destination and fish habitat.

Three new inshore artificial reefs are currently under construction in Mississippi Sound north of the west end of Dauphin Island. These reefs are a continuation of a funding partnership between the Coastal Conservation Association and the Alabama Marine Resources Division.

Reefs enhance aquatic habitat and marine resources and also help conserve, manage and develop fisheries resources. In addition to the big fish targeted through artificial reefs, other marine species also benefit from the added habitat.

“The bay itself is a high nutrients bay that has the potential to produce a tremendous amount of seafood,” Shipp said.

The impact of artificial reefs is huge. In a 2002 study, the economic impact of fishing and diving at platforms in coastal counties in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas was $324.6 million. Nearly half of the total amount was measured in personal incomes supporting 5,560 industry jobs.

“It’s a totally different fishery because of the artificial reef program,” said Chris Blankenship, director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division and program administrator for the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission.