Fish and Wildlife

Fish and seafood are fixtures along the Alabama coast, valued as an industry, a primary recreational pastime, and a staple of the diets of residents and visitors. Area waters have historically provided a plethora of commercially- and recreationally-important fish and shellfish species. However, with reduced landings in recent decades, it has become apparent human impacts on fish populations or the value of fish populations as an indicator of ecosystem health have never been adequately examined. The 2002 CCMP called for research to establish the status and trends of individual species of living estuarine resources and identification of indicators of ecological change. Objectives relating to restoration of habitat and management of these living resources required detailed knowledge of the abundance and distribution of estuarine fishes and invertebrates. Some of that information is now available through reports like the “Analysis of the Long Term Fisheries Assessment and Monitoring Program” derived from the data set collected by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Marine Resources Division, and the Fisheries Oceanography of Coastal Alabama’s (FOCAL’s) long-term baseline survey which concentrates on gathering biological and oceanographic data. With the help of academic/public partnerships like that found in the Dauphin Island Sea Lab’s Manatee Sighting Network, the monitoring of key estuarine living resources like this endangered species has been expanded with assistance of volunteers, which not only helps track and study these mammals, but also provides a means to predict ecosystem responses to environmental changes.

Like the estuary itself, the issue of fish is complicated, involving many interconnected facets. For instance, one cannot look at the health of the living resource - fish - without also examining the health of the critical resource needed for all aquatic species to thrive - sea grass. SAV distribution has severely declined in recent decades due to both natural and human-related disturbances. While efforts to reverse SAV loss are underway using wave attenuation techniques, these efforts will only achieve limited success unless the quality of water coming from upstream is improved. This relationship between fish, habitat, and water is a prime example of the interconnectivity of ecosystem components.

One of the most severely-impacted resources over the past decade has been oysters. A commercial seafood staple, most of the nation’s total oyster harvest comes from the Gulf Coast. The massive reefs supporting the Alabama oyster fishery are the foundation of a healthy and resilient coastal ecosystem, not only for the oyster, but also for other species relying upon the reefs for food or shelter. They provide coastline protection from erosion, and they help clean the water of sediments and pathogens. Many acres of oyster reef have been lost due mainly to predation by oyster drills related to drought, tropical weather events, and even increases of sediment in the water due to land use changes. Currently, there are several programs working to restore reefs. The Roads to Reefs and 100-1000: Restore Coastal Alabama public/private initiatives are underway. On Mon Louis Island, a living shoreline restoration included oyster reef restoration as part of the plan.