250-foot ship will become Alabama Gulf Coast’s latest dive site

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BY JOHN MULLEN/contributing writer
Posted by Lagniappe | Aug 2, 2017

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.”

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