Old Becomes New Again in Alabama's Inshore Reef System

Outdoor Alabama

March 23, 2023

By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Famous author Stephen King once wrote that “Sooner or later, everything old is new again,” which applies to recent work in Alabama’s coastal waters. Obsolete structures once used for shoreline protection in Mobile Bay are being used to create new habitat for oysters, crustaceans and the bountiful inshore fish species that inhabit Alabama’s biodiverse estuaries and bays.

The Nature Conservancy teamed up with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), Mobile County, Dauphin Island Sea Lab, the University of South Alabama and Alabama Gulf Seafood to repurpose material from the shoreline protection project that was deployed in 2011 in Mobile Bay in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was used by The Nature Conservancy, ADCNR and Mobile County to complete the project.

“It was three different types of reefs that we put in the water as an experiment to see what worked best to protect the shore, for the fish and for the oysters,” said Judy Haner, The Nature Conservancy’s Marine and Freshwater Programs Director for Alabama. “In the end, these particular cages took a beating from the waves. Even though they weren’t really protecting the shore anymore, they were still great fish habitat, and oysters were still on them.

“We knew they were ready to come out of the water because Mobile County is getting ready to build a breakwater system and backfill some mud to rebuild the shoreline starting this fall.”

The project involved removing the cages with a track hoe fitted with a grapple on a barge and transporting them to an open area at Bayou La Batre’s City Docks. The Nature Conservancy staff, partners and volunteers assembled to disassemble the cages. Oysters were collected and sorted to be returned to known oyster reefs near Bayou La Batre.

“We thought this was going to take us two days because we’ve never done this before,” Haner said. “We had no idea. We asked folks to show up at 8 o’clock. They showed up at 7. We got rolling and, before we knew it, we got the project done in half a day instead of the two days we thought. Many hands make for little work.”

The next phase of the project involved using the same equipment and barges to collect the Reefballs that were deployed in the same areas as the cages and reuse them in the construction and enhancement of inshore artificial reefs under construction by the ADCNR’s Marine Resources Division (MRD).