Artificial Reef History
Alabama's Artificial Reef Program
A Brief History
Alabama has the largest artificial reef program in the United States at the present time. The natural bottom offshore of Alabama is predominately flat sand bottom. This bottom type attracts 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. In fact artificial reefs can be created that over time will appear as natural reefs with similar communities of encrusting organisms and bait fish. As various encrusting organisms such as corals and sponges cover the artificial reef material, small animals take up residence. As these small animals become abundant larger animals are attracted and feed upon these. Yet larger fish are attracted to these and so on until a complete reef food web is created. At that point the artificial reef functions as a natural reef.
Alabama's artificial reef building program started in 1953 when the Orange Beach Charter Boat Association asked for the authority to place 250 car bodies off Baldwin County, Alabama. 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 in order 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. The initial deployment under this program was on June 1, 1994 with the initial deployment of six tanks. With the successful completion of this deployment, the mechanisms were in place for the deployment of hundreds of tanks in the future. While the deployment of these tanks represents a tremendous potential to the development of Alabama's reef fisheries, the beginning of this program was many years ago.
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. The idea of using these obsolete 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 will have on the reef fisheries and associated economy of Alabama became obvious.
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 to plowshares.
On May 19, 1994 final inspection of the first six tanks was made by representatives of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U. S. Coast Guard, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Marine Resources Division. This inspection ensured that the tanks would present no environmental threat 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. On May 26, 1994 the tanks began their journey to Mobile, Alabama and on June 1, 1994 they were deployed within the artificial reef area offshore Alabama. The tanks were deployed quickly and cleanly. Many eyes were on these tanks as they sank beneath the surface. It was like watching clean river rocks sink. No evidence of sinking was left at the surface; no film, sheen, dirt or debris of any kind.
On June 27, 1994 final inspection of 58 additional tanks was made by representatives of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U. S. Coast Guard, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Marine Resources Division. This inspection was identical to that performed for the first six tanks. On July 18, 1994 the tanks began their journey to Mobile, Alabama and on July 25 - 29, 1994 they were deployed within the artificial reef area offshore Alabama.
On September 26, 1994 the final phase of REEF-EX 1994 was completed with the deployment of 36 tanks. These tanks were inspected as per the protocol established among the various agencies described above.
These 100 tanks sit in depths of 70 to 110 feet of water within the Hugh Swingle and Don Kelly North artificial reef areas. This makes easily them accessible to scuba divers as well as fishermen.
This program represents excellent cooperation between the federal government and the State of Alabama. It will result in increased productivity in the reef fish fishery for Alabama's fishing citizens and their children for years to come.
We certainly hope that this program can continue in the future. We hope to get other obsolete military hardware. Individual protocols for inspection of these items have been developed by the agencies to ensure they are environmentally safe before they are deployed.
In late 1997, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers authorized an expansion of Alabama's artificial reef construction areas to allow for greater 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.
Simultaneously, beginning in 1996 the Division 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 was deployed in a roughly circular ring (see attached drawing) on the hard substrate of the historic reefs. Plans are to complete these reef complexes by placing cultch material inside the rings to promote the creation of a natural oyster reef community. This is planned for 1999.
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 ten additional inshore reefs in the next couple of years.