By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Alabama has an extremely valuable resource in waters off our state’s coastline. It combines great fisheries with manmade structures to create the nation’s premier reef fish destination.

The Alabama Artificial Reef Program has overseen the deployment of 15,000-plus structures in the 1,000 square miles of artificial reef zones off the coast. Those reef zones are recognized as the best place in the world to catch red snapper. Of course, plenty of other reef fish live off the Alabama coast, but it’s hard to get a piece of bait past the red snapper because of their abundance.

However, a threat to that ecosystem is creeping into the reef fish habitat like an incessant plague – the invasive lionfish.

Of those 15,000 or so artificial reefs, about 1,200 are public reefs that have been deployed by the Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) with the assistance of numerous partners through the years.

Those public reefs provide fishing opportunities for a variety of individuals who may not have the resources to deploy private reefs. Three years ago, Marine Resources realized the lionfish infestation was spreading rapidly through Alabama waters.

“In 2013 we started doing some lionfish surveys,” said Craig Newton, MRD biologist. “From those surveys, we quickly realized we needed more help determining habitat preferences of lionfish and removing lionfish. We also saw that we needed help removing debris from reefs and identifying reefs that needed enhancement.”

Hence the birth of MRD’s Adopt-a-Reef program that is targeted at recreational divers who enthusiastically explore the undersea wonders in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

“Some of the artificial reefs have subsided into the seabed, and some reefs have just deteriorated over time,” Newton said. “It would be beneficial to maintain the productivity of the artificial reefs program to identify those reefs that need enhancement. Marine Resources just doesn’t have the manpower to survey the 1,200 or so public reefs that we have.

“That’s where the public comes in. The Adopt-a-Reef program is geared toward a wide variety of divers. They can be introductory, open-water-level certified with very few dives

under their belts. Or they can be more technical divers who can go deeper and stay longer. They can use lift bags and other equipment to lift heavy anchor lines and heavy anchors off of the reefs.”

While MRD will take all the help it can get from the divers in the program, one of the main goals is to gather as much information as possible.

“They can just look at the reefs and tell me what they see,” Newton said. “They can tell me if the reef is broken down and some of the walls collapsed or it’s subsided into the seabed or if there is a lot of fouling debris, like fishing lines, nets and whatever. They don’t have to remove it. Just tell us about it. Then when resources are available, we can go take care of that reef. That may be removing fouling material or adding reef material to it or beside it.”

Certified divers can find public reefs in water that is 35 feet all the way to the limit of the diver’s certification, which usually maxes out at 130 feet.

Unfortunately for those saltwater environs in their path, lionfish can thrive in a wide variety of habitats, from estuaries to waters 1,000 feet deep.

“Lionfish distribution is expanding and abundance is growing,” Newton said. “It’s been documented that they are competing with our native reef fish for habitat and forage resources. It’s hard to say how many reefs are affected. It’s hard to say what causes an infestation of a particular reef.”

Obviously, Newton and MRD don’t want to see anything diminish the effectiveness of Alabama’s artificial reef zones. The reef program began back in the 1950s when a group

of fishermen cabled together 50 car bodies and sank them off the Alabama coast. The deployments continued with the sinking of the Liberty ships in the 1970s. The Reef-X program took surplus Army tanks and deployed them in the 1990s. The latest development is the Rigs-to-Reefs program where derelict petroleum platforms are salvaged and deployed as artificial reefs.

 “We’ve put in a lot of effort and the public has put in a lot of effort to build the most productive artificial reef program in the country,” he said. “We’d like to be able to maintain that level of productivity by keeping the reefs cleaned up and keeping the lionfish population to a minimum.”

One bit of good news is that the lionfish filets are delicious, and numerous restaurants along the Gulf are taking advantage of this newfound resource. Whole Foods, a grocery chain, also announced it would sell lionfish filets when available.

Newton said new technology has allowed divers to take lionfish with a minimal threat of coming in contact with the colorful fish’s venomous fin spines. 

“There are some new containment devices,” he said. “The one we like is the Zookeeper. It makes handling the lionfish much safer and much more efficient.”

Newton, who is certified to dive to 130 feet, thought a program that employed the help of the diving community was a natural fit.

“Divers in general are a conservation-minded group,” he said. “One of the premises for this program is to foster that conservation mindset and have the divers invested in the resources. They can feel a sense of accomplishment, and they’re doing their part by participating in the program.”

Certified SCUBA divers who are interested in the program can email MRD at Reef.Survey@dcnr.alabama.gov to enroll.

Once participants are enrolled, they can log in to a web-based application to submit their reef data, view the geo-referenced data they previously submitted as well as plan subsequent dives to reefs that need further attention.

The information MRD wants from an Adopt-a-Reef survey includes the reef’s structural integrity, degree of fouling from debris, and the number of lionfish observed and harvested. Once that data is submitted, participants can view the data submitted by other Adopt-a-Reef volunteers.

Visit http://lionfishmap.org/alabama/ for more information.

PHOTOS: (AMRD) One of the derelict Army tanks deployed during the Reef-X Program is teeming with a variety of fish, including red snapper. The removal of invasive lionfish is one of the goals of the Adopt-a-Reef Program.

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