In the 1950s, there weren't many red snapper off the Alabama coast.
Near shore, the bottom was too soft and devoid of any structure that could be habitat for the reef fish, which would eventually become the mainstay of the recreational fishing industry. Far off shore, 18 miles or so, reefs were there but tough to find. Fishermen would drop wax-covered weights to the bottom then haul them back up, hoping to find the wax encrusted with coral or other reef material. If so, they would start fishing.
Within sight of shore, they occasionally would stumble upon sunken boats or other underwater structures attractive to fish. They would mark the location by triangulation with landmarks on the shore.
That gave the fishermen an idea. Why not build their own reefs?
"People intuitively knew those structures from shipwrecks and such held fish," said Kevin Anson, chief marine biologist in the Ma
rine Resources Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. "They embarked on a program in the early 1950s with the state and the local Orange Beach fishing association to reef car bodies within sight of land. That was the start."
Mississippi program fizzled
Mississippi considered a similar program but it fizzled after Hurricane Katrina, said Mississippi Gulf Fishing Banks board President Ralph Humphrey. Before Katrina, the group built its own reefs on a shoestring budget, spending $5,000 to $25,000 on a reef, longtime member Mark Miller said.
After Katrina, the federal government poured millions into Gulf states to save the fishing industry, which was dealing with a sharp drop in tourists, badly damaged fish habitat and tons of storm debris in the waters.
Anson said Alabama spent about $1 million of the more than $43 million it received from the federal government through its post-Katrina Emergency Disaster Recovery Program on artificial reefs. He said it spends $150,000 to $200,000 annually on artificial reef construction and about $200,000 a year on artificial reef research.
Funding from taxes
"The majority of that money, year in and year out, comes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's sportfish restoration program. That's revenues collected from taxes imposed on fishing tackle manufacturers and then redistributed back to the states based on license sales, fishing licenses."
In contrast, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources has spent at least $6.2 million in disaster-recovery money on artificial reefs through the nonprofit MGFB. That group opened its books to the Sun Herald, but the DMR will not discuss post-Katrina reef-building because of an ongoing state investigation.
Today, Anson said, Alabama recreational fishermen land 35 percent of the red snapper caught in the Gulf by recreational fishermen in a state that has just 5 percent of the Gulf coastline. That, he said, is pretty good evidence the state's artificial reef program is working.
Big returns on red snapper
"About 95 percent of the red snapper harvested in Alabama and landed in Alabama are caught off our artificial reefs."
According to a preliminary count by the NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Office, recreational fishermen in 2012 landed 2.44 million pounds of red snapper in Alabama, 157,000 pounds in Mississippi, 682,000 pounds in Louisiana and 2.33 million pounds in Florida.
"If you're looking at red snapper as your gauge, it appears we do pretty good at producing red snapper and our fishermen do pretty well at catching them, too," he said.
Attract or produce?
But there is some question whether the reefs simply attract fish or produce more fish.
"That's what our research is starting to show," Anson said. "It does in fact attract fish but it also produces fish in that it does provide them a home, provides them a place where they can seek shelter and have a place to eat and from there they reach an age that they start to reproduce.
"It certainly is a debate in scientific circles. Under good management, at least in a very cursory glance at it, under good management artificial reefs seem to have a management role or function that is positive to fisheries in general. Some species benefit more than others."
Anson said scientists on both sides of the debate say the verdict is already in but he thinks there is a lot to learn.
"I think in the next four, five years, there's certainly lots of research going into it, people looking at it a little bit more in depth, and using a lot more technology available to them to ascertain how those fish migrate along reefs, use those reefs, and we'll probably have a more concrete answer very, very soon."
Alliance keeps down costs
In Alabama, a state-private sector partnership holds down the cost of the artificial reef program. The state holds a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit for 1,250 square miles of water bottom in federal waters off its coast. It builds some reefs. In fact, it's about to build two reefs in its state waters and sink a couple of fairly large vessels that will appeal to fishermen and scuba divers.
And it will allow some private reefs that won't cost the state a cent.
"We developed protocols that allow private individuals to deploy reefs that met the guidelines or protocols that were agreed upon and were approved by the corps. They're fairly restrictive in the types of materials someone can use to build a reef -- steel, primarily, maybe aluminum, concrete, those kinds are typically what private reef builders do."
After the state approves the reef material, it's up to the person or group to get the material to the reef site.
Private reefs popular
"It's been very popular," Anson said. "We have some individuals who will submit designs for their own personal use, there are individuals who are in the business of deploying reefs on behalf of other individuals, and so they'll sell a reef, if you will, and deploy it for them.
"Most are on the small side so they can be put on a boat or a barge and deployed."
The state won't publicize the location of a reef but anyone who finds it can fish it.
"They don't provide us the exact information," Anson said. "They provide us a general GPS location and we don't publish those.
While that reef building doesn't cost the state, it does have to patrol the waters for illegal dumping.
"There is some cost as far as enforcement that's included in our general patrols whereby we're checking for fishing violations and safety violations," Anson said. "We'll patrol to make sure there isn't anybody who is illegally reefing material because without a permit that's considered ocean dumping.
"After (a reef) hits the bottom there aren't any costs associated with maintenance and upkeep. That's their responsibility if they choose to do so. They're typically of steel construction and those, within five to seven, 10 years, they've dissolved away to the point there is not much of the reef left."