The Booming Business Of Alabama’s Artificial Reefs

Irina Zhorov is a print and audio journalist. She is the author of the novel, “Lost Believers.”

ORANGE BEACH, Alabama — In the 1960s, charter boat captain Armand Annan began dropping old cars into the Gulf of Mexico. To ensure he could find them again, he triangulated their locations using markers like water towers and buildings.

Annan had discovered that these manmade “reefs” attracted fish and made his job of taking tourists out fishing easier and more predictable. Annan created more and more artificial reefs. Others, seeing his success, began following suit. 

What Annan was doing was legal — he had received permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build reefs in the Gulf. But not everyone obtained permits and conflicts with the U.S. Coast Guard grew. In 1987, John Winn, a regulator in the Corps’ Mobile office drew up a then-800-square-mile reef zone to ease reef building and gave Alabama’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources a permit to manage it in perpetuity. (Today one of the largest regions of the reef zone is named after Winn, and his wife’s ashes are embedded in an artificial Gulf reef.)

The creation of reef zones kickstarted a new, more assertive era of reef-building. People sank anything with nooks and crannies for juvenile fish to hide: old cars, boats, tires, washers and driers, refrigerators, toilets, armored military tanks, voting machines, harvest combines. Eventually, reefs evolved from so-called “materials of opportunity,” to specially built structures made of rebar and cement. Once lowered to the sea bottom from boats, life almost immediately takes up residence in, on and around these structures.

There are about 14,000 artificial reefs off the 50-mile-long Alabama Gulf Beach coast. The state’s waters host one of the world’s largest and most robust artificial reef-building programs. The reefs have transformed sections of the Gulf’s ecosystem and support a lucrative fishing economy that would not otherwise exist.  

“It’s kind of like picking wild raspberries,” said charter boat captain Brian Annan, Armand Annan’s nephew. He started working these waters with his uncle when he was nine, in 1974. That year, federal and state agencies sank five military cargo ships off the coast of Alabama to make reefs. “You plant more instead of just waiting on Mother Nature to plant.”

Yet if you imagine the Gulf of Mexico as a garden, these gardeners often work in secret to preserve favored spots for clients or themselves. The result is a largely haphazard, grand experiment in cultivation with few set rules.

An artificial reef and its inhabitants in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Florida. (Carol Cox/Noema Magazine)

A Sense Of Ownership

The natural northern Gulf floor consists mostly of sand and mud. Worms, protists and diatoms live in its soupy, flat bottom. When shrimp reach adulthood they migrate away from shore toward this muck, burrowing in and spawning. It is Eden for shrimp, and since the late 1800s or so, shrimping has been an important local industry. 

Fishermen could catch mackerel, Wahoo and mahi-mahi in the Gulf during their migrations, but stumbling on them was not guaranteed and, when the water cooled, the fish moved on. Anglers had to travel far offshore to an area where small rocky outcrops jut out of the mud for year-round reef fish like amberjack, grouper and red snapper. These species prefer hard structures they can hide and spawn in or visit for food. 

As far back as the 1930s, according to local lore, some fishermen keen to expand fishing opportunities, created underwater structures of their own. Rather than travel to the fish, they reasoned, the fish would come to them. This wasn’t a wholly unique idea — Japan has managed its fisheries with artificial reefs since the 1600s. For decades in the Gulf, oil platforms have served as loci for sea life and anglers.

The reef zones established off the coast of Alabama by the Corps in 1987, however, created a unique regulatory structure for reef building. Alabama has, by far, the most extensive artificial reef zone of the 17 states that maintain similar programs. And unlike the other states, which must seek new permits for their reef programs every five years, Alabama manages most of its zones permanently. This lends longevity to the program. Most notably, in Alabama (and some counties in Florida) both the state and private individuals can participate in reef-building. 

The state primarily works with Orange Beach, Alabama-based company Walter Marine. Founded by chance by a boat mechanic, restaurant owner and tinkerer named David Walter, the former boat repair shop is now run by his son, Stewart. Around 1986, David Walter bought a boat from an oil company that had gone bust but wasn’t sure what to do with his new vessel. A charter fisherman asked if he’d consider using it to haul car hulls out to sea.

“Alabama has, by far, the most extensive artificial reef zone of the 17 states that maintain similar programs.”

“If you can guarantee 20 cars, I’ll convert the boat to haul them,” Walter recalled telling him in his 2019 book. By the next day, there were 40 cars ready to go. There was so much demand that Walter closed the restaurant and boat shop, to haul full time.

When Alabama outlawed the deployment of car reefs and restricted what materials could be sunk, in the 1990s, Walter began designing modular reefs, toying with shapes, sizes and materials that would pass muster with regulators. He landed on a tetrahedral pyramid — with 8-foot and 15-foot-tall rebar and cement models — each side embedded with fist-sized limestone rocks mined from the Florida coast.

The limestone, a material prevalent on natural reefs, helps ensure that anything that can grow in a natural ecosystem can also grow on a Walter Marine reef. The Walters took notes from both anglers and regulators as they tweaked their designs. At one point, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which had found several dead sea turtles at tetrahedral reef sites, warned the reef might be trapping the threatened and endangered turtles. Stewart Walter said that Walter Marine shortened one wall of its pyramid, creating a larger opening for turtles to swim through, and sent NOAA pictures of a life-sized fiberglass turtle emerging through the hole.

TOP: The tetrahedral artificial reef design made by Walter Marine, stacked and ready for deployment. LEFT: An alternative reef design that attracts grouper and juvenile fish. It includes rocks mined off the coast of Florida, to mimic a natural reef. RIGHT: The Maranatha II docked beyond some extra large “super reefs” waiting for deployment. (Irina Zhorov/Noema Magazine)

Ninety percent of the public reefs the state of Alabama has deployed were done by Walter Marine, according to Craig Newton, who directs the state’s artificial reef program. There’s an inventory of the state-deployed reefs that anglers can use, plugging their coordinates into GPS devices on trips out to sea.  

But these public reefs can get crowded and many anglers prefer to drop their own. Those interested in doing so must pay $33 for a permit, pass state checks for contaminants like plastic or toxic paint to ensure they aren’t dumping trash and, once approved, they’re free to drop a reef. 

“It creates a sense of ownership for the angling community,” said Newton. “They can take a reef out and say, ‘You know what, this is my reef. This is my spot.’ And have some pride in how many fish are hanging around that reef and utilizing that reef that they built.” 

To date, Newton estimates that private citizens have installed roughly 80% of  Alabama’s coastal reefs. Though anyone can use them theoretically, they’d first have to find them. The exact locations of each captain’s reefs are squirreled away in their notebooks or well-guarded logs.  

When Brian Annan took over his uncle Armand’s charter business in the late 1980s, he also took over reef building. The day I visited his dock, chicken transport cages, a popular material today, stood stacked around the property and loaded on one of his boats, waiting for good weather. Annan said he drops 30 to 40 reefs each year.

Annan compares the endeavor of reef-building to agriculture. He manages his reefs like a farmer might manage fields, rotating the locations he visits and limiting the fish he removes from any one spot. “A lot of times we’ll get 10 fish or less and move on,” Annan said. “We spread the love, so to speak.” In this way, he’s managing his own little fishery in addition to complying with federal and state catch limits, which dictate which fish he can catch, when and how much. He’s proud of the infrastructure he’s built up. At one point I asked Annan what business would look like without the artificial reefs. 

“We wouldn’t have a fishery,” he replied without hesitation. “It’d be like if we didn’t have any agriculture in the United States.”

An artificial reef in the Gulf of Mexico. Red snapper like to hang out around these reefs, which can make them easier for anglers to find and catch. (Carol Cox/Noema Magazine)

Reefs As Moneymakers

When a reef is lowered into the water, life often appears instantly, sometimes within minutes. Fish come from other reefs or spot the new edifice while passing through an otherwise structureless section of sea. “We really don’t understand the mechanism of why they first show up on these sites,” Avery Paxton, a research marine biologist with NOAA, told me. “If I put myself in the fish perspective I would think that certainly there may be opportunities for seeking refuge from predators. They may be curious.”

Some of the fish stay and eventually spawn. Meanwhile, micro- and macroalgae starts to grow on the reef, attracting various grazers. Larvae from invertebrates floats by, lands and attaches to the surfaces of the reef. Barnacles, corals, mollusks and sponges take up residence. A mature reef may be covered by sea life, which will in turn draw more sea life seeking food.

“To date, (Craig) Newton estimates that private citizens have installed roughly 80% of  Alabama’s coastal reefs. Though anyone can use them theoretically, they’d first have to find them.”

Not all reefs are created equal. Car hulls don’t make for particularly biodiverse reefs. But modules of concrete with hiding spots perform better. Artificial reefs can host comparable fish communities to natural reefs, but where they are placed — in relation to natural reefs and ocean currents — also impacts success.

Annan sees this with his own reefs. Of every 10 he deploys, one to three become what charter captains call a “phenomenon,” he said. When he pulls up on these super performers, 30 to 40 snappers will shimmer like rubies on the surface. He likes to throw cheese puffs in the water and watch the fish give chase. One or two reefs end up duds, where little seems to take. And the rest are good, serviceable fishing spots.

The reefs host grouper, triggerfish and, his “bread and butter,” red snapper. Snapper has a long history in the Gulf; anglers nearly loved it to death by the 1970s, and rebuilding and managing snapper numbers has been an ongoing project ever since. Despite this, tourists and locals alike are zealous about hooking one. They’re big, pretty and delicious. And while snapper put up a fight, they are, ultimately, relatively easy to catch. Perhaps most importantly, charter boat captains and their charges are almost guaranteed to find them at a reef. In other words, catching a snapper is both an adventure and a safe bet, two things that make charter boat clients happy.   

Though Alabama has a tiny share of the Gulf Coast and waters under its control, about 6%, nearly a third of snapper harvested by recreational anglers are caught here. Fishing, and fishing for snapper specifically, have driven the evolution of Alabama towns like Gulf Shores and Orange Beach from sleepy fishing villages to the condo-congested beach communities they are now.

It’s hard to separate out the economic benefits of snapper, but in the Gulf recreational fishing alone brings in nearly $5 billion in sales, and snapper is certainly one of the big draws. Without the artificial reefs, snapper wouldn’t be nearly as accessible. There are few studies of the economic impact of artificial reefs, but research in Florida concluded that in that state alone fishing and diving on artificial reefs generated $3.1 billion in economic activity. 

In Alabama, the artificial reef program evolved from angler demand. The lack of natural reefs off its coast was thought to limit potential fisheries. But creating reef habitat helped solve that problem.

“There are a lot of people from all over the country that come visit Alabama to catch the red snapper, to catch greater amberjack and enjoy the fishery here,” Newton, the state’s reef program director, told me. “It’s also culturally important to the people in the area, as well. There’s something to be said for grandparents and grandkids getting to enjoy the same type of lifestyle and fishing activities across several generations.” 

But what is the ecological impact of these reefs? That’s a harder question to answer.

An artificial reef in the Gulf of Mexico. Life takes up residence on artificial reefs almost as soon as they are lowered. (Carol Cox/Noema Magazine)

An Impossible Question

The biggest biological uncertainty around artificial reefs has been whether they’re increasing fish numbers or just moving fish around by attracting them away from their natural habitat. If they’re growing the population of, say, red snapper, then they’re helping a beloved species recover from overharvesting and contributing to the fishery’s sustainability. If, on the other hand, they’re just concentrating snapper in known locations that make it easier for anglers to catch them, then the reefs are doing quite the opposite. 

“To say that a fish survived better because we had an artificial reef, we would have to answer an impossible question: What would have happened to that fish if that structure wasn’t there?” said University of South Alabama’s Sean Powers, who directs the Stokes School of Marine and Environmental Sciences. (Powers also has a small reef zone named after him.)

It’s difficult to decipher what’s happening because fish are hard to count — they’re underwater, their range is huge, and they’re constantly moving. But, Powers told me, “We know what the fishery was like before we had artificial reefs. We know what the fishery is like now that we have artificial reefs, and it appears to be sustainable.” 

Over the past decade, scientists have increasingly united around the idea that both attraction and production are happening: Artificial reefs do draw some fish away from other habitats, they do make anglers more efficient, but they also increase the survivability of some fish, helping their numbers grow. How much of either is happening depends on the fish.

“But what is the ecological impact of these reefs? That’s a harder question to answer.”

Take red snapper. Juveniles tend to hang out around reefs, which protect them from predators. “By providing structure and refuge for those fish during that time you’re increasing their probability of survival to an older age,” said Powers. Once snapper is full-sized, the fish is considered a top predator, and it moves from the reef to open water. Older, mature snapper breed most prolifically, but those often aren’t the easiest to catch on reefs. “Theoretically, that should help their numbers,” Powers told me.

Other fish may have different life cycles, so each species must be studied separately.     

But if reefs are a good habitat for desirable fish then they’re also attractive to undesirable species. Artificial reefs have been found to host invasive and nonnative coral, mussels, tunicates and an Australian jellyfish. They’ve also helped expand the range of invasive lionfish. 

“Just about any artificial reef out there now has several lionfish on it,” Mark Albins, research assistant professor at the University of South Alabama’s Stokes School of Marine and Environmental Sciences, told me. “In some cases, the lionfish are almost as abundant as some of our native fish on the reefs, and they’re having an impact and taking a share of the resources.” 

The reefs are also fundamentally altering the environment in which they’re deployed. “There was something there before, and that something had value,” Albins said. “There are worms that live in that sediment, there are fish that specialize in soft bottoms and things like that. And when we put a reef down, it affects the hydrodynamics of that area, it affects the nutrient load of that area, it affects the predator-prey interactions of that area to a vast degree. We’re very much changing the ecosystem in that really small area.” 

When Alabama deploys public reefs, it spaces them apart, purposefully leaving natural habitat in between. It’s their way of minimizing impact. One study suggested that that level of planning is relatively uncommon; reef drop locations, it found, rarely incorporate ecological considerations, even though doing so could improve fish populations and decrease resource conflicts among people using the water. Indeed, Alabama does not dictate where to put private reefs as long as they’re within the reef zones. 

“It’s the only disadvantage,” said Powers of the state’s program allowing private reefs. “It would be nice to have a little more control over where those reefs are going.” 

Once installed, the reefs create a system suited to large reef fish rather than one that naturally supports a thriving shrimp population, Powers explained. Shrimpers can’t trawl in the reef zones because the reefs can damage their nets, though there are other parts of the Gulf or Mobile Bay where they can still work. By putting down reefs, “we are purposefully deciding that as a society we value the fish more than the shrimp,” Powers said.   

For fishermen like Annan — who also shrimps! — none of this is a problem. He’s cultivating the farm, which is his snapper, but he also hunts for shrimp, mostly in Mobile Bay. 

For others, it’s a question of scale. Artificial reefs, if they’re all added up, makeup about 4-square-miles of the Gulf’s floor. That’s a very tiny fraction — far less than one percent — of the Gulf, which is estimated to be nearly 620,000 square miles in area. Without coordinates, they can be difficult to find. For Albins, human manipulation of the environment can go too far to be a net positive, but “we’re not even close to that” in the Gulf, he said. “The benefits of [the changes caused by the reefs] are huge when it comes to the economics, the culture and the fishery itself.” 

As with all natural resource management, managers must try to balance human and nonhuman uses. “I think a lot of it becomes philosophical almost,” said Paxton. “What is your view as a scientist on how much humans should manipulate or create new habitats, right?”

Researchers and citizens working and using artificial reefs constantly grapple with this question. Artificial reefs aren’t going anywhere. In the past several years, BP has boosted reef-building through its ongoing restitution payments for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The types of reefs we might see in the future could be different.

For example, the Gulf has more than 3,000 oil and gas structures. Eventually, they’ll have to be retired and many are already overdue for decommissioning. By law, they must be removed. But they can also be left at sea as large artificial reefs through established and proposed rig-to-reefs programs.

“By putting down reefs, ‘we are purposefully deciding that as a society we value the fish more than the shrimp.'”
— Sean Powers

Doing this would save oil companies money, so some environmentalists are suspicious that the programs are a ruse for ocean dumping. But many environmentalists have come around; increasingly, signs point to this remnant oil infrastructure serving as a rich marine habitat. It’s just not habitat that would naturally be there.

TOP: The Maranatha II’s crane lifting a reef for deployment. LEFT: Stewart Walter, at sunrise, steering the ship to a drop site off the coast of Destin, Florida. RIGHT: Two of the workers on the ship hook up a juvenile reef for deployment. On the left is Will Knodel, who says this job is “a little deeper than a paycheck.” (Irina Zhorov/Noema Magazine)

Hitting The Bullseye

The Maranatha II is a 165-foot retired oil field supply vessel that’s painted a brilliant blue and has a red crane stationed at its rear. Every few days, its flat open deck is loaded with Walter Marine reefs and sailed into the Gulf. On the trip I joined, two 15-foot pyramids towered near the front, 54 smaller pyramids, stacked in threes, made up the bulk of the cargo, and a handful of juvenile reefs — three enormous plates stacked on top of a low ledge (a particular favorite among young fish) completed the haul. It looked like an ancient lost city sitting on deck.

The Maranatha departed at 10:30 p.m. on a recent spring evening. As she crawled down the Intercoastal Waterway at six knots per hour Walter led his crew of four men in prayer. The night captain, a retired oil rig supply boat runner, cast two bright searchlights into the darkness, skimming the glassy ribbon of water and illuminating a wall of trees on shore. 

Eight hours later, the boat bobbed in 2- to 3-foot waves some 24 miles off the coast of Destin, Florida. A member of the crew baked fresh biscuits in the galley as a coral sunrise washed over the slate blue waters around us. Before each trip, Walter consults with his clients about where they want their reefs dropped and maps the coordinates. These particular reefs, commissioned by Okaloosa County’s artificial reef program, were to go in nearly 300 feet of water to benefit fishermen. 

In the wheelhouse, Walter steered the boat to its drop spot, watching a GPS-enabled screen for accuracy, as if he were in a video game. Next to that screen was another with the location of the crane and its own GPS. Walter maneuvered the boat, kicking up brilliant turquoise water, until the crane on-screen hovered over the bullseye of a reef’s intended new home. They can get a reef within less than five feet of the target.

On deck, two crewmen climbed a pyramid, ran a thick rope through its windows, and looped it onto the crane’s hook.  

“You never thought you’d meet a bunch of guys rock climbing in the Gulf,” yelled Will Knodel, the resident fix-it-all man, over the roar of the boat’s engines.

When Walter gave the signal, the crane operator lifted the nearly 20-ton reef into the air and lowered it off the side of the boat. 

“Down, down,” Walter crackled over the radio.

The pyramid slowly sank. When it hit bottom, the hook automatically unlatched and the boat bobbed to its port side, recovering from the weight. Over the walkie-talkie, Walter clicked twice. That told the crew the reef was on the seafloor — success. 

“We’re like a bunch of dolphins,” listening for clicks, Knodel told me.

The crane cable wound back up — job done — and Walter took off for the next spot. Actual dolphins swam at the boat’s nose, smooth bodies glinting just below the water’s surface. Slowly the deck emptied into the sea. 

Knodel squinted at the water, crossed off a reef from his list. This job is “a little deeper than a paycheck,” he said. “I create homes for homeless fish. It’s cool.” His dad’s ashes are also embedded in a reef that’s now in the Gulf.  

In the dark, headed home after a long day, Walter also reflected on the day. He’s a man of faith — the name of his boat, Maranatha, means “Our Lord has come” in Aramaic — and is sincere about his belief in his work.  “God gave us the ability to build things and make things usable and build houses for ourselves and gave us a mind to learn how to farm,” he said. “So why not use our tools to build a better fish population? I just haven’t seen a downside to it yet. I truly believe we’re doing a good thing.”

Two artificial reefs about to be lowered to the Gulf Coast floor. (Irina Zhorov/Noema Magazine)