Alabama’s artificial reef program in the Gulf of Mexico is unparalleled. In fact, the program is such a success that Orange Beach is known as the “Red Snapper Capital of the World.”

Unfortunately, when the National Marine Fisheries Service declared red snapper “overfished,” it caused the red snapper seasons to become shorter and shorter. The recent red snapper season was only 28 days long.

Searching for expanded opportunities for anglers along the Alabama coast, the Alabama Marine Resources Division started looking for ways to accommodate anglers with more near-shore reefs.

The near-shore reef program is named in honor of the late Vernon Minton, Marine Resources Director from 1990 until his death in 2010.

Chris Blankenship, who succeeded Minton as Marine Resources Director, said Minton’s legacy includes his ability to foster partnerships with local fishing organizations and contractors to maximize reef-building efforts, the expansion of the inshore reef and Reef-Ex projects, and the directing of funds to research reef fish associated with artificial reefs.

Alabama’s artificial reef deployment started back in the 1950s. The Liberty ships were sunk in the 1970s, followed by bridge rubble from the demolition of the old Dauphin Island Bridge in the 1980s. Derelict U.S. Army tanks went down in the 1990s as part of the Tanks to Reefs program. In the 2000s, Tensaw Bridge rubble and pipes and culverts (Roads to Reefs) were deployed. Before severe season reductions occurred, proceeds from the Red Snapper World Championship provided funding for more than 1,000 pyramids that were deployed offshore.

“We’ve been building offshore reefs and inshore reefs for many years,” Blankenship said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that we have the best reef-building program in the country. We have 1,200 square miles of reef zones with about 17,000 reefs. So all that material has been put out there logically and spread around the whole area. That gives us the best reef fishing in the world.

“With so many reefs offshore, we had the idea that we wanted to build reefs in state waters in the Gulf of Mexico to increase fishing opportunities closer to shore. We also wanted to honor Vernon’s commitment to the marine resources of Alabama.”

With the boundary of Alabama state waters at three miles, the area for the near-shore reefs was limited. Marine Resources also had to find areas that would not conflict with other user groups, especially the shrimping industry.

“For the first two areas, we wanted to find some areas in Baldwin County that didn’t have much shrimping activity and were fairly accessible from Perdido Pass,” Blankenship said. “And then we needed to get them in deeper water, where they would be effective and still have the relief over the top of the reefs.”

The R. Vernon Minton Artificial Reef Zone – West is almost a mile square with water depths of 32 to 42 feet and is located southwest of Perdido Pass. The East zone is a little more than a half-mile square with water depths from 34 to 44 feet and is located just east of Perdido Pass. Because of limited shipping in the areas, reef relief was not a problem.

“We side-scanned those and they looked like good areas to build habitat,” Blankenship said. “We got our Corps of Engineers permit. I had to do some surveys for the Alabama Historical Commission to make sure there were no shipwrecks or anything of historical significance in the areas.”

The decision was made to deploy six-foot-tall pyramids in the areas. About 240 of the pyramids have been placed in the reef zones by winning bidder David Walter (a.k.a. Reefmaker). Blankenship said in the corners of each reef zone additional habitat was deployed.

“We placed disc structures with pilings,” he said. “The discs have limestone rocks that are good habitat for juvenile red snapper and smaller fish. This will give them a place to aggregate and have a place for protection as they grow.”

Although the reefs have only been out from one to two months, Blankenship said fish were already starting to aggregate around the pyramids.

“I’ve already been out to fish the new reefs and there were bait fish around the reefs,” he said. “And I caught some king mackerel trolling above the reefs. We think it’s going to be a great spot for kings, Spanish mackerel and bonita. It will be a good trolling alley, and it will hold red snapper and other reef fish. We also think these will be good locations for sheepshead in the winter and early spring months. These are good size areas with plenty of room to fish.”

Blankenship said if the anglers use the near-shore reefs as he expects, Marine Resources will look at other opportunities off Fort Morgan and possibly Dauphin Island.

“The problem is we do have a lot more shrimping activity off Fort Morgan, Sand Island and Dauphin Island,” he said. “It could create some user conflict, but we hope to minimize that.

“We’re hoping this will be successful and give smaller boats places to fish in the Gulf and diversify our fishery from a red snapper fishery to where we have good trolling alleys for kings and Spanish, species that have longer seasons.”

Blankenship said much of the funding for the new Minton reefs came from the Emergency Disaster Relief Program that the state received after Hurricane Katrina. The project also received contributions from the Orange Beach Fishing Association and the Coastal Conservation Association. Coordinates for the new Minton reefs will be posted on soon.

Blankenship also said other reef projects are in the works.

“We will soon be putting out the first of the 25-foot-tall structures that include a 15-foot pyramid with other structure attached it to it make it 25 feet tall,” he said. “This will be the first 10 of 30 that will be deployed. We’ll put these out in five spots with two pyramids in each. Some spots will get four that are spaced out to try to mimic a large vessel. We’re going to see if that will help to attract more amberjack to try to diversify our reef system for other fish than red snapper.”

Speaking of red snapper, Blankenship said the recent red snapper season in June was an obvious success.

“The fishing was outstanding,” he said. “The fish were good size, and I enjoyed seeing all the nice fish people were catching. We saw a lot of nice fish on Facebook. I want us to manage that fishery so that people will have more than a month to catch them. It was an awesome month, but it was just too short.”

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council met this week to discuss an expanded red snapper quota because of a recent stock assessment that showed the fishery has improved significantly.

“We think we will get somewhere between three and four million pounds,” Blankenship said. “There will be a discussion as to whether we allow fishermen to take the additional quota this year or whether we smooth it out over the next few years so the seasons will be more consistent.”

Image courtesy David Rainer

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