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Marine Resources Honors Partners in World’s Top Artificial Reef Program

If any doubt existed that Alabama has the best artificial reef program in the world, Chris Blankenship made an emphatic declaration last week that Alabama’s artificial reefs are unparalleled anywhere on the planet.

Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), made that unabashed statement at The Lodge at Gulf State Park during a naming ceremony for seven new artificial reef zones in nearshore waters off the coast of Alabama and the renaming of one existing offshore reef zone.

“We live in an extremely beautiful state,” Blankenship said. “God has really blessed us with the beach, the mountains, the Black Belt and all the areas in between. We have some of the best hunting and fishing, and I get to go around the country and talk about all the wonderful things we have in Alabama. But there is nothing that I’m more passionate about than when I get to talk about the artificial reef zones and the artificial reef work that we have in Alabama.

“When I go places and tell people that Alabama has the largest artificial reef program in the world, a lot people scratch their heads and look at me like, ‘We didn’t even know Alabama has a coast. What do you mean you have a great artificial reef system?’”

That’s when Blankenship backs up his claim with the facts, including the more than 1,100 square miles of artificial reef habitat, the 15,000 or so artificial reefs and the variety of reef structures that are deployed off the Alabama coast, including ships, barges, bridge rubble and other reefs designed specifically to enhance the marine habitat.

Blankenship, the former Marine Resources Director, said last week’s ceremony was an opportunity to recognize people and organizations that have been instrumental in helping Alabama to build the world’s largest artificial reef system.

“One of the things that I am most proud of when we talk about the artificial reef program and the reason we’ve been so successful in Alabama is there are so many partners involved in the work that gets done out there,” he said. “And nobody cares who gets the credit. I think that’s why it’s been so successful.

“I can honestly say that with the artificial reef program in Alabama, there has been more concern about doing the good work, building this habitat and building this fishery we have and a whole lot less concern about who gets the credit.”

Despite the humility, Blankenship said ADCNR wanted to take the time to recognize those people and organizations that have made the lofty status of the Alabama artificial reef system possible through decades of partnership work.

The seven new reefs that were named are located in the new nearshore reef zones that were finally approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last year.

Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon read proclamations from Gov. Kay Ivey that highlighted the contributions of each of the honorees.

“This day has been a long time coming,” Bannon said. “We’ve been working these artificial reef zones. Alabama has arguably the largest artificial reef zones in the world. We’ve expanded into the 6- to 9-mile range. We knew we needed to honor some of the people and organizations that helped make this happen. That also included our staff. We have a great staff at Marine Resources.”

One of the nearshore zones was named for the contribution of the Alabama Wildlife Federation, which helped develop the Alabama Artificial Reef Development Plan. The plan has helped to secure $35 million in funding for inshore and offshore artificial reef zones.

The Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) of Alabama contributed to reef construction and enhancement after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 by providing financial and logistical support for artificial reef work both inshore and offshore.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) has been a contributor to conservation research in Alabama since 1984 and provided about $34 million in recent years for the expansion and enhancement to Alabama’s artificial reef program.

The Alabama Charter Fishing Association, formerly known as the Orange Beach Fishing Association, actually started the artificial reef work off Alabama long before any other organization. The association has worked with the State of Alabama for the past 60 years to make the artificial reef zone the best in the world. Those reefs allow the Alabama charter boats to take thousands of people each year from across the country and world to enjoy phenomenal fishing for species like red snapper.

The Alabama Gulf Coast Reef and Restoration Foundation was created to enhance the diving and fishing opportunities off the Alabama coast with fundraising for the deployment of the 271-foot ship “The LuLu” in 2013 and the 128-foot party boat “Capt. Shirley Brown” in 2015. The foundation also worked with Marine Resources to establish the Poseidon’s Playground, where novice divers can gain experience in nearshore waters. The foundation continues to work with Marine Resources to develop plans for additional reef deployments and also works with the dive community to monitor the health of the reefs and remove invasive species like the lionfish.

Dr. Stephen Szedlmayer, a professor at Auburn University’s School of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures, has been studying reef fish, especially red snapper, off the Alabama coast for the past 25 years. Szedlmayer’s research has contributed to the recognition of oil and gas platforms as significant habitat for juvenile reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico. His research has also led to a better understanding of the life cycle and longevity of red snapper off the Alabama coast.

The other new reef was named in honor of Dr. Sean Powers, head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama (USA) and senior scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. Powers, who succeeded Dr. Robert (Bob) Shipp as head of Marine Sciences at USA, has researched reef fish habitat in the Gulf since 2003. His current research is focusing on the abundance of reef fish off the Alabama coast.

“Before, we had to learn a lot about the life history and reproductive strategy of red snapper,” Powers said. “That’s what we have learned from Dr. Shipp and Dr. Szedlmayer. Now we need to move it to more quantitative, to actually use the research to estimate the abundance of red snapper so we (Alabama) can manage our own fishery.

“We have a lot of red snapper off Alabama, but we harvest a large amount of red snapper too. It’s a delicate balance, but I think it’s one that we’ve achieved. Like last year, we (through Snapper Check) realized how many snapper were being caught and the season was shortened. That gives me a lot of confidence in the new system.”

Dr. Shipp, professor emeritus at USA, has been studying red snapper off the Alabama coast since 1973 and has been instrumental in the development of the Alabama Artificial Reef Program. Dr. Shipp has served more than 20 years on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, including three terms as chair. At last week’s ceremony, the Don Kelley North General Permit Area was renamed the Dr. Robert Shipp Reef Zone.

“I think it’s just great that Chris and the State of Alabama recognize how valuable the red snapper resource is,” Shipp said. “They’ve done a great job of creating this reef system.

“I will say this – I’ve said it before – we’ve got to have state management (for red snapper). If we had state management, we could have a six-month season with a two-fish bag limit, and it wouldn’t make a dent in our population.”

Blankenship said that Alabama is blessed to have three great marine scientists in Drs. Szedlmayer, Powers and Shipp.

“They have dedicated so much of their careers to the work done off the Alabama coast,” Blankenship said. “Their work is known as the gold standard of red snapper research anywhere in the world. Largely, it is because of these three people that we have been able to expand the artificial reef program and build such a great fishery here in Alabama.

“And I want to say, we’re not done. When you have the success we’ve had in building reefs off Alabama, there’s a tendency to become complacent or think you’ve done enough. We don’t feel that way at all. We’re going to make sure we continue to have the best artificial reef program in the world.”