Alabama is making the most of its small slice of coastal waters with an aggressive—and awesomely productive—artificial reef program.
Artificial reefs are not a new concept. Ancient fishermen knew that even a pile of rocks would attract fish to feed their tribe. In Japan, fishermen have been building artificial reefs for centuries and they are considered private property. Poaching a reef in Japan is considered the same as sneaking into your neighbor’s garden and stealing tomatoes off the vine. Here, we try to hide our private reefs by keeping GPS numbers in a little black book under lock and key. But if someone happens to stumble upon your favorite spot, well, that’s just bad luck for you.
In the U.S., the artificial reef boom ramped up after 1984, when Congress passed the National Fishing Enhancement Act, which encouraged states to construct artificial reefs. Since then, the reef rush has continued to accelerate. In the early days of American-based artificial reefs, myriad scientific studies were done, which asked one simple question: do reefs create more fish or do they simply aggregate the fish that were already swimming around looking for a place to settle down? While there is still some debate, the overwhelming evidence is that artificial reefs provide habitat for fish populations to flourish. Along the northern Gulf of Mexico coast, this is especially true for gamefish species such as snapper, grouper, triggerfish and others that are perfectly suited to underwater structure. Consider the red snapper. Its population in the northern Gulf continues to grow faster than Taylor Swift’s bank account.
In the 1980s, I did a lot of scuba diving in the Gulf. We kept a 22-ft. boat in Orange Beach, Alabama, and had a list of several hundred public and private reefs we’d hit within 15 miles of shore. I still have the list and like to look at the notes next to certain numbers like, “20-lb. grouper!” or “Big shark!” or “No big fish—try next summer.” We spearfished like wild men and always brought back a load of amberjack, snapper, grouper, triggerfish and the occasional lobster. Back then, Alabama was on a mission to build the nation’s most extensive network of reefs. They dropped Army tanks, tugboats, ships, school buses, hundreds of cars and just about anything that would make a good home for a fish. Of course, anything with hydrocarbons, like gas tanks, brake lines and so forth, were removed before they were dropped into the deep. Then, in 1989, a new bridge was built at Alabama’s Perdido Pass and the old bridge was tagged to become a reef extravaganza.
(As a side note, we made a night dive under the old Perdido Pass bridge a few weeks before it was removed and were freaked out to see that many of the massive cement pilings had been eroded so much that we could swim underneath them. Car and truck traffic moved along above us unaware that only a few rods of rebar seemed to be holding the bridge up.)
Fortunately, the bridge was deconstructed before it collapsed. Also, Alabama had the wisdom and foresight to remove the bridge in giant chunks to make some humongous reefs. Today, almost 25 years later, those reefs are still extremely productive and are part of more than 17,000 man-made reefs off of Alabama’s coast. Even though the state has about 60 miles of Gulf-front coastline, it has more artificial reefs than any other state in the union, including Florida.
One of our favorites sites to dive was a place we named Little Rome (it still exists) because the old concrete bridge pilings I’d once swam under were dropped into the sandy bottom in 90-ft. water in such a way that the rebar stuck into the sand. This allowed the 60-ft.-long pilings to stand erect even though they were tilted and cracked with big chunks scattered along the ground like the ancient ruins of Rome. Since most dive sites in the Gulf only have a relief of 10 to 20 feet, it was nice to be able to ascend up those pilings to within sight of the surface. Plus, they held a lot of nice fish.
Fishing Alabama’s reef system is pretty simple. All you need is a decent boat with a GPS and a depth sounder. You zip offshore to the latitude and longitude intersection, and then you slowly circle the area until you see a big red and yellow hump on your bottom machine. Then you fish. Experienced captains can decipher the colors and shapes and pretty much tell you whether a fishing spot will produce good fish and what kind of fish to expect. Even a beginning boater just learning how to punch numbers into his GPS and set the gain on the depth sounder can have a lot of success…if the spot has fish. Some well known reefs can get fished out during the peak fishing season, but there are so many reefs it’s just a matter of moving to the next one until you find the fish.
Scuba diving these reefs is a completely different animal. Descending in 60 to 100 feet of water can be eerie, like falling through outer space, because you can’t see the sandy bottom or the reef when visibility is 25 to 50 feet. Occasionally, the blue gulfstream water moves in and visibility might jump to more than 100 feet, but, for the most part, as the diver is pulling down the anchor line, he’s staring into a blue-green void, hoping and praying that some structure will appear.
It takes a skillful captain to hook the anchor within 50 feet of the reef. Currents and wind move the boat as the anchor is falling. Then an anchor will drag before it catches. On more dives than I like to admit we got to the sandy bottom and all we could see was more sand in all directions. We call that a moon walk because without an artificial reef to explore, the bottom of the Gulf is one big, fishless moonscape.
While Alabama is the nation’s undisputed champion of man-made reefs, the state continues to press for more. This past summer, a 270-ft. ex-cargo ship was dropped in about 110 feet of water. The Lulu, named after Jimmy Buffett’s sister (and her restaurant) went down with tremendous fanfare 17 miles offshore. I was on the 80-ft. press boat where they served us fried chicken and beer, or what we call breakfast in L.A. (Lower Alabama). They even hired legendary southern rock band, Wet Willie, and set them up on a barge next to the ship to play some old favorites like “Keep on Smilin’,” “The Country Side of Life” and “Grits Ain’t Groceries.” That had to be some kind of world record for a band playing that far offshore. About 300 boats showed up full of locals to watch the Lulu go down and wiggle to Wet Willie tunes. In Bamaland, any occasion is appropriate for having a party.
With more reefs than any other state, a growing population of fish to catch, a vibrant charter boat fleet and easy access to offshore artificial reefs, Alabama can proudly claim to be Number One. And as fans of the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide football team know, once Alabama takes over the top spot, it takes some kind of miracle to knock them off of that throne.
If they gave out world records for building artificial reefs (and by golly they should), the winner, by a long margin would be Alabama seafarer David Walter. Over the course of three decades, Walter and his company, Walter’s Marine/Reefmaker, has put down more than 35,000 artificial reefs.
“Back in 1984, when the oil business had crashed, I bought an old 42-ft. work boat for $2500,” Walter recalls. “I wasn’t sure what to do with it and a captain friend of mine, Earl Griffiths, told me I should haul old cars out and make reefs out of them.” Walter was skeptical.
“It sounded like a crazy idea. I didn’t think anybody would pay me to haul old cars out there. But I told Earl that I’d convert the boat if he could get me 20 cars and pay me $100 per car to dump them. The next day Earl called and he had 40 cars.”
And so began Reefmakers long career of building reefs along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coasts. It became so popular for fishermen to have their own private car or school bus reef that Walter’s business took off like a king mackerel hitting a spinning rod.
“At one point, I had a year-and-a-half waiting list,” Walter said. “We just couldn’t build them fast enough.”
Over the years, cars went out of vogue and reef making materials morphed into more durable and permanent structures.
“In the early days, we experimented with different designs until we settled on a structure with limestone rocks. Our customers expected to catch a lot of fish from each reef, so we made the largest artificial reef in the US.”
These days, Walter is still hired by sport fishermen, but his primary clients are governments. “We’re building a lot of snorkeling reefs for cities and counties. We put 40 structures off of Pensacola Beach and now they want more. The fishermen, divers and snorkelers love them.”
Walter’s company was the obvious choice to put down the Lulu. It was their 13th ship to deploy.
By Fred Garth