Craig Newton would love to see the state add a new large ship to its artificial reef system, but is unsure if any of the $22.5 million in Restore Act money can be used for one.
“We have about $7.5 million available for offshore reefs and we’re hoping that we can get large ships on the scale of 400 feet or so out of this,” Newton, a biologist with the Alabama Marine Resources Division, said. “That’s undecided right now whether or not we’re going to be able to use it for large shipwreck reefs or what type of reefs we’ll be able to build with that.”
He said the funding agency for the $22.5 million reef program, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, wants more studies done on how well the larger ships create habitat. The money is part of the fines related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from April 2010.
“These funds are strictly for habitat-enhancement projects that will result in the greatest net benefit to the resources,” Newton said. “We’d like to build large shipwreck reefs with it, but the funding agency needs some more monitoring information and information about the production potential of different sizes of reefs before they agree to let us use that money for those.”
This project is also an extension of another project the state has been undertaking in the past two to three years that included some 600 pyramid reefs from Dauphin Island to Orange Beach. These were 10-foot structures deployed six to nine miles offshore, among other reefs in that $11.8 million project. Included also was sinking of New Venture, a 250-foot former research vessel sent to the bottom on July 5 about 20 miles south of Orange Beach.
“This $22.5 million is a continuation of that enhancement strategy that we began implementing three years ago,” Newton said.
If finding and sinking a ship doesn’t become part of the program, Newton said the money for that part of the program will be used to deploy more of the 25-foot-tall pyramids in the offshore zone. It’s one of several facets to a program that will include deployments in several areas in spending the $22.5 million.
“The overall goal of these construction projects was to create a more productive reef ecosystem in the inshore, nearshore and offshore waters,” Newton said. “Also, to provide connectivity between different habitats for fish like sheepshead and flounder that spend a bunch of time inshore and then go to the nearshore waters for spawning purposes.”
Part of the offshore program will include 250 of the 25-foot pyramids which will take up about $5 million of the offshore allotment.
The inshore reef program will include deployment of new reef structures in Mobile Bay, which will cost about $2.1 million.
“The reefs in Mobile Bay are going to be inshore reefs to help with our oyster production and pinfish as well,” Newton said. “We’re designing these structures to provide high-quality settlement substrate for larval oysters. Once the oysters become established it will become a more productive community. But we also have fish like spotted sea trout, flounder and sheepshead and gray snapper, which will also utilize these reefs.”
Nearshore waters will see the deployment of about 1,500 smaller reefs with about 300 in the surf zone and another 1,200 in the six- to nine-mile range.
“We’re going to deploy about 1,200 juvenile fish shelters,” Newton said. “These are shelters that are relatively low-relief and they are going to go in the nearshore reef zones. We already have quite a few of these structures out there now and they’ve been extremely productive in providing habitat for juvenile triggerfish. We’re hoping we can find some additional utilization opportunities for juvenile triggerfish to allow more of them to enter our fishery.”
Both the juvenile shelters and those in the surf zone are the 4-foot high, round disc modules made of concrete and limestone. Newton said these will serve as transitional areas for fish hatched inshore, but which make their way to nearshore waters as they grow and eventually offshore.
“[The shelters will] provide connectivity between different habitats for fish like sheepshead and flounder that spend a bunch of time inshore and then go to the nearshore waters for spawning purposes,” Newton said. “Also, as snapper spend the early part of their lives in the estuaries, as they grow, they move offshore. The nearshore reefs provide kind of like a stepping stone in that intermediate region for them to have refuge and foraging opportunities before they get farther offshore. Overall, the goal was to increase survivorship and increase production potential of our whole system through habitat enhancements.”
Other money will be spent to obtain permitting to add about 95 square miles to the current Alabama artificial reef program. Funds from this project will pay for the work on this permitting.
“The permitting process has become more cumbersome over the years, and to satisfy all of the requirements of the [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers we’re going to end up spending about $1.4 million to acquire permits for the new water bottoms,” Newton said.
There is also a research component to the grant that will help with management of the valuable red snapper fishery, Newton said.
“We’re also going to spend about $3.3 million in research and monitoring,” Newton said. “This is critical to allow us to continue our management of the red snapper and continue to allow access to the red snapper fishery. So, we’re going to fund research that provides high-quality data that can be included in our management strategy of red snapper.”
In the previous $11.8 million part of the project, Newton said modules placed included 166 in the circalittoral or surf zones, 170 of the 25-foot-tall pyramids offshore, 600 4-foot disc reefs in the six- to nine-mile zone, 15,000 tons of limestone aggregate for juvenile reef fish, two shipwrecks offshore, 125 juvenile fish shelters three miles off of the coast of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores and 15 reef sites were enhanced with 850 concrete culverts, junction boxes and pipes.
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