BY JOHN MULLEN/Contributing Writer
Alabama’s artificial reef zone, the largest in the country according to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, is about to get a big boost from another big boat.
“It’s something that we’re proud of,” Craig Newton, Alabama’s artificial reef coordinator, said.
Sometime this fall, or perhaps early winter, the former Fairfield New Venture, a 250-foot oceanographic surveying boat built in 1986, will be sent to the bottom in about 125 feet of water. It will settle on the Gulf floor somewhere off the coast of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.
The big reef program has thousands of units already in place and is an economic driver in the resort towns. That, in turn, drives revenue up Interstate 65 to Montgomery for projects all over Alabama.
“There’s no question if we didn’t have the reef program that we do, all the big marinas in Orange Beach wouldn’t be in operation,” Newton, also a state biologist, said. “The tourist value would be significantly decreased from what it is now. That’s not just along the Gulf Coast of Alabama. The state itself gets a lot of taxes from tourists coming down and going fishing and staying in hotels, eating at the restaurants.
“A lot of those wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for the reef program.”
There’s always been interest from local charter fishermen in placing more structure on the flat bottom of the Gulf, Tom Steber, president of the Alabama Charter Fishing Association, said.
“When you talk about going fishing, you’re going to some manmade reef,” Steber said. “Alabama was the pioneer of it. That reef system is the only reason that we have the fish we have. Without that, there would be no bottom fish here.”
That system was first started by local charter fishermen, Steber said.
“You’ve got to keep in mind that, for the last five years back to 15 years prior to that, the charter industry in the state of Alabama built that system,” he said. “It started with charter boats basically putting car bodies out. Then it evolved into getting federal funding and putting tanks out, putting out the liberty ships.”
Several recent additions include attractions for the growing sport of diving. In May 2013, the 271-foot LuLu was sent to the bottom about 18 miles south of Perdido Pass, and divers immediately flocked to it. The LuLu lies in about 112 feet of water, with the top of the wheelhouse just 55 feet down.
In June 2015, the Capt. Shirley Brown, a former dinner and party boat measuring 128 feet, was sunk in about 85 feet of water, also off Orange Beach. Both ships are accessible to divers with advanced open water certification.
Another recent addition begun in 2014 is Poseidon’s Playground, a network of cement statues and dedicated reefs at the perfect depth for novice and youth divers. Dive instructor and underwater photographer Lila Harris was one of the driving forces behind the playground, mainly to create an interesting place to train her youth divers.
All of the recent additions have made Alabama a popular spot for traveling divers.
“It’s all about distinguishing this area as a dive destination,” divemaster John Rice with the Down Under Dive Shop said. “The LuLu has been wildly successful, but scuba divers want more intact wrecks. That’s the marketing side, but these reefs do so much more. They offer a way to kickstart habitat for vulnerable species, such as the goliath grouper.”
The Alabama Gulf Coast Reef and Restoration Foundation raised the money to sink the LuLu as well as the Capt. Shirley Brown. It also played a role in Poseidon’s Playground and is working on the permitting to place snorkeling reefs accessible from the beach at sites in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores.
Newton said the state is in phase one of an $11.8 million program funded by BP through a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
“We’re looking at about $4 million going offshore,” he said. “That’s 140, 25-foot-tall super pyramid reefs, two shipwrecks and contracts for ‘materials of opportunity’ including repurposing concrete culverts, pipes and manholes. In the nearshore zone, we’re looking at 575 or so new reef structures between six and nine miles offshore and 125 pedestal-style juvenile reef modules. On the inshore, we’ve got about $3.7 million to build new inshore reefs and refurbish many of the existing inshore reefs.
“We’re spreading it out between those three regions — inshore, nearshore and offshore habitats.”
Newton said the 575 reefs planned inside the nine-mile mark are still waiting for permitting from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“The six-to-nine-mile reef zone, we’ve been working on a permit for approximately four years now,” he said. “We think we’re finally close to receiving a permit and we expect it before 2018. When we get the permit, we’re going to invest more than $2.5 million in that six-to-nine-mile zone.”
Establishing habitat in that zone, Newton said, will help boost the health of many Gulf species.
“That’s in the transitional zone,” he said. “You’ve got things like sheepshead and red drum and flounder and mangrove snapper that are moving from inshore water to near coastal waters — whether it is spawning migrations or they grow up in estuaries and move offshore.
“That near coastal water is kind of devoid of quality structure to use as habitat — whether it be for shelter from predators or foraging opportunities. If we increase the habitat available in that area, we feel like it’s going to help out with overall population of those fish that go from one zone to the other.”
Some of the new reef locations aren’t being made public and will be used to study their impact. This research is also funded by the BP grant.
“We have the research programs designed so we can evaluate how to build the most productive reefs for the most efficient cost,” Newton said. “How big the reef should be, how close to the nearest neighbor it should be … things like that will help us maintain the highest level of fisheries production possible.”
Newton said he and other state officials are already working on phase two of the reef program and are preparing a grant proposal with an eye on more BP money from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
“It’s up in the air whether or not we’ll get this one,” he said, “but we’re in the planning stages on it.”
The next big thing
Right now the Fairfield New Venture is docked in Houma, Louisiana, where it’s being prepared for its trip to the bottom. This project alone will take $970,000 of the grant money.
“All the environmental testing has been completed,” Newton said. “That’s checking for asbestos in the insulation and in the tiles, PCBs in the paint and glues. We got a clean bill of health on the environmental side.
“As of right now they are in the process of cleaning out the tanks and flushing all the lines of any hydrocarbons and lubricants or fluids that would be a contaminant.”
A Tuscaloosa company, Cahaba Disaster Recovery, has the main contract on the sinking and is working with several companies to get the ship prepared. Part of the work includes making it more interesting for divers and attractive for fish.
“In addition to cleaning it and making sure it’s environmentally friendly before it is actually sunk, they are going to cut holes in the sides of the ship and bulkheads,” Newton said. “It will allow diver access and give the structure more complexity, which will help out with habitat value for reef fish, too.
“There’s going to be more to it than just a ship.”
But, he added, it’s too soon to pinpoint a date for the sinking.
“We’re in the early stages of it, so we’re talking about four months,” he said. “It’s hard to get an idea of when it will go down.”
An eagle will soon land in this underwater attraction to join 12 other structures already in place.
“We have a cool guy named Rob Morgan who’s a Boy Scout,” Lila Harris of Aquatic Soul Photography said. “He has raised the money to create a new addition to the playground. He’s from Mobile, and he’s creating something for his Eagle Scout project.”
Harris said Morgan has worked closely with Stewart Walter at Walter Marine in Orange Beach to make sure the materials are suitable and not harmful to the environment.
“He’s going to get a base, very much like our grouper reefs, and on top of that he’s going to have a statue of an eagle,” Harris said. “He’s also going to create pyramids, two of his own, out of metal.”
The playground is evolving just as Harris hoped it would when the first four pieces went in in 2014. She was looking for a place to take her junior open water divers to explore after earning their certifications. The deepest they can dive is 40 feet, and the playground sits at 38 feet.
“It’s just been a great alternative,” she said. “It’s giving a way for young divers to dive something different beyond diving just right off the beach. Dive shops are actually running trips out there once or twice a week for novice divers or people who haven’t been diving in a while and need to have an easier dive.”
She also envisioned the community becoming involved with individual citizens and businesses contributing to add structures. All of them were built with donations.
There’s also been a wildlife contribution or two.
“It’s really generated some interest, and it’s been interesting to watch it from the beginning to see the growth on each of the structures,” Harris said. “Fish have come in. We’ve seen sharks, we’ve seen octopus, we’ve seen grouper in the grouper reef. It’s been really exciting to see that.”
Several small pyramid reefs were placed with handprints of famous people attached to the sides. First in was Nicolas Cage, who was in Orange Beach filming a World War II movie. Co-star Cody Young and director Mario Van Peebles also contributed handprints in cement on one of the reefs.
World-renowned underwater photographer Stephen Frank’s handprints are on a turtle from Walter Marine with a plaque thanking him for showing the world underwater beauty, Harris said.
In all there are 12 items, with more planned. Harris is always on the lookout for a possible structure to add to the site.
“We have a marlin, a sailfish a family donated in honor of one of their family members and to help out the playground,” she said.
Harris said Walter Marine, the reef foundation and Alabama Marine Resources have played instrumental roles in the continuing success of the playground.
“Alabama Marine Resources and Craig Newton have been extremely helpful,” Harris said. “They told us what we’re allowed to do and what we were unable to do. They gave us great guidelines.”
Vince Lucido, president of the Alabama Gulf Coast Reef and Restoration Foundation, has been working hard to get snorkeling reefs placed along Alabama’s beaches.
“We’re excited about it,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a great thing to have for our coast — just a place to go snorkel.”
The reefs will be placed just past the second sand bar, about 120 to 130 feet off the beach — if the permitting comes through.
“We’re working on the plans for that right now,” Newton said. “We just finished the coastal resource survey, and once we get the report we’ll send it to the Corps and wait on their determination.”
Lucido and company are eyeing three spots, two in Orange Beach and one in Gulf State Park, for the offshore attractions.
“They’d be the beach access at Perdido Pass beach, east of the pass, the Romar Beach access and the state park pavilion,” he said. “Those are the three sites we’ve surveyed so far.”
Lucido estimates the project will cost approximately $270,000, and is hoping money comes through on some grants the foundation has applied for.
“We’ll go through it and try to have a fundraiser with individuals, and we’re trying to get the cities and county to help us out,” Lucido said. “The state has got $100,000 to apply toward the snorkeling reefs. They’ve got some additional money for the permitting.
“We’re looking at roughly $270,000, and the state’s got $100,000, so we’re looking at needing $170,000 to do all three sites at the same time. If not, we’ll just do one site at the time as the funds become available.”
Walter Marine, the same company employed to sink the LuLu, will supply the eco-reefs for the snorkel areas. Each module is made of sandstone and concrete and has three or four plates on each one. They are about five feet across.
“It’s the same modules he put over in Perdido Key for Escambia County and over in Pensacola,” Lucido said. “We’d like to have at least 30 per site, and they are roughly about $3,000 apiece installed. That’s what we use to budget. We won’t know until we bid it out what the final price will be for each module.”