Reef Madness

How Alabama fishermen are repopulating the sea.


Ecologically speaking, Alabama is one of the least likely locations for a thriving game-fish population, or "fishery" in the technical jargon. The very same sparkling white sands that attract sun worshipers to the Camellia State's Gulf Coast stretch for scores of miles offshore. For game fish, that featureless sandy bottom is an underwater desert that provides little food or shelter.

Yet the waters just off Alabama boast one of the nation's most robust red snapper populations. Comprising just 5 percent of the Gulf of Mexico's U.S. coastline, Alabama's tiny section of beachfront nonetheless produces between 30 and 40 percent of all the red snapper recreationally caught in the Gulf. Precisely how this came to be is no accident of nature: It is a testament to human ingenuity and innovation—and it provides one model for repopulating the planet's rapidly depleting fisheries.

What is Alabama's secret? Artificial reefs.

The state's gulf waters are home to the largest concentration of artificial reefs in the world. The reefs act as fish nurseries, creating populations in an otherwise barren seascape. Nearly 14,000 artificial reefs have been placed in a 1,200 square-mile area off two major tourist towns, Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, which are visited regularly by game-fishers looking to reel in a prize catch. The Orange Beach Chamber of Commerce estimates that its game-fishing charter fleet of more than 100 boats pumps around $90 million a year into the local economy. "It's a very, very successful program," says Robert Shipp, head of the Marine Sciences Department at the University of South Alabama in Mobile.

Fishers learned long ago that they could find fish living around shipwrecks and other underwater debris. Beginning in 1953, the state of Alabama officially permitted fishers to make their own sea-floor structures by dumping things like car bodies, old tires, refrigerators, clothes washers, and even shopping carts offshore. It worked. "I often say scientists just kind of follow fishermen and put a little stamp of approval on the common sense that the fishermen have developed over the years," says Hal Osburn, director of the Coastal Fisheries Division at the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife. "Without the artificial reefs in Alabama, we wouldn't have any fish to fish," says David Walter of The Reefmaker, a company that manufactures, sells, and deploys artificial reefs.

The new generation of artificial reefs avoids the downside to using "materials of opportunity"—the junked cars and the shopping carts used 40 years ago. Shrimpers' nets often were destroyed by being dragged across unmarked reefs. (The shrimpers complained, and in 1987 the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over coastal waters, to designate a large permit area for artificial-reef creation.) Another problem with using junk for reefs is that salt water corrodes and destroys many structures within just a few years. Storms would regularly wash remnants of car bodies and old tires up on Alabama's beaches, annoying tourists and locals dependent on tourists. The problem became so unsightly that in 1997 Alabama banned the use of junk and scrap for artificial reefs. That action spurred entrepreneurs such as Reefmaker's Walter to develop a wide variety of purpose-made artificial reefs, most often of molded concrete.

Nowadays, Alabama's charter fishing boat captains and some local community groups buy and deploy specially designed concrete artificial reefs. For example, Reefball designs a popular reef in the shape of a hollow concrete ball riddled with holes. Artificial Reefs makes hollow concrete pyramids with triangular holes. The Reefmaker builds pyramidal structures that incorporate old tires. Individual reefs cost between $250 and $750, depending on size, and the price usually includes the cost of dropping them into place out in the Gulf. Since boat captains want to make sure that their clients enjoy successful fishing trips, they often invest upwards of $10,000 and $20,000 annually to buy and deploy purpose-made reefs.

Loaves and Fishes

For years, scientists debated whether artificial reefs actually produce more fish or merely attract them to convenient locations where fishers can nab them. Auburn University fisheries professor Stephen Szedlmayer recently conducted a study of the diets of red snapper and grey triggerfish taken from artificial reefs and concluded that "artificial reefs are productive environments" for both species. That is, the reefs actually breed more of those species of fish. Vernon Minton, director of the Marine Resources Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, agrees that the debate is settled. "We are growing fish here," he insists. "We have some very good published research that shows that in our area we are producing additional biomass of fish. It's a very fair statement to say that the artificial reefs and the program are improving the quality of the environment." The University of Alabama's Shipp thinks so, too: "We're landing eight to 10 times what we did over 100 years ago. I think the increase in population is doubtless because of the reef program."

Such gains mean that the Alabama artificial reef program is important to more than just a local game-fishing industry. Fisheries are being depleted around the world. "At least 60 percent of the world's fisheries are overfished or fished to the limit," declared the World Wildlife Fund in 1998. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization found in its The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2000 report that 68 percent of the world's fisheries are either fully or over-exploited and that another 10 percent are depleted or recovering from depletion. In short, artificial reefs in Alabama are helping address the problem of overfishing by producing more fish.

So far, so good. The ability of artificial reefs to actually grow the population of fish provides a key part of a possible solution to diminishing global fisheries. But there's also a problem in Alabama and, like the success there, it's one with larger implications. When someone puts a reef on the sea floor, anyone can go and fish over it. People who take the time and expense of buying and deploying the reefs have no guarantee that they will benefit from their efforts.

"They [local fishers] consider it like planting a garden," says Robert Shipp. "They put out their reefs and then they'll go back the next year and harvest their red snapper. But the reefs are put on public bottoms so the only guarantee that one has to harvest his garden is the secrecy of the location—and that may disappear because people find these reefs all the time and anybody can fish them legally. They belong to the public."

"I feel like I own the reef out there since I paid for it, had it deployed, and decided where it would go down," says Orange Beach charter boat captain Art Jones. "But in effect I don't own anything that's out there. It's open to everybody out there." He adds, "I've had lots of problems with overfishing on my reefs." Reefmaker's David Walter puts it more bluntly. He says that when people find a reef someone else has put out, "They just rape it. They take every legal-size fish, and it's no good for at least a year."

By contrast, the fishers who deploy reefs have a strong incentive to protect and manage them; they know where the reefs are, and can come back later to catch more fish if they leave some behind to breed and to grow. "We manage the reefs for conservation purposes. We do not take all of the fish from the reef that we can possibly catch," says charter boat owner Jack Murphy. "We catch only a certain amount and then move to another reef. We never clean off a reef."

Scott Bartkowski, the president of Artificial Reefs, a Pensacola, Florida, company, agrees that people who deploy reefs "can keep a good census of how many fish they've harvested off that reef and are better able to control the numbers." He compares that to rogue fishers simply finding somebody else's reef "and literally cleaning it off."

An Uncommon Tragedy

So even Alabama's successful artificial reef program still suffers from the well-documented environmental dynamic known as the "tragedy of the commons." This occurs in situations in which any member of the public has a right to exploit a resource. In such an open-access commons, the incentive is for people to take as much as possible before someone else beats them to it. If a fisher wants to leave some fish in the sea to breed, he doesn't because he knows that the next fisher will likely catch them and sell them, and thus gain all the benefits. In this way, the tragedy of the commons results in the depletion and degradation of the resource.

"The tragedy of the commons is the universal, fundamental problem with almost all fisheries nowadays," explains Shipp. Unlike, say, cattle ranchers, most fishers don't "own" their fish populations. So in order to prevent overfishing by interlopers, Alabama fishers go to a lot of trouble to keep their reefs' locations secret. Using the U.S. Department of Defense's Global Positioning System, which uses satellite signals to determine locations on the earth's surface, fishers can get within a few feet of any reef that they've deployed, and their reefs' GPS coordinates remain closely held secrets. Fishers typically rotate among a number of reefs so that they do not overfish any one of them. Often, if fishers see another boat on the horizon while they are over one of their reefs, they will stop fishing and move on to prevent the other boat from identifying the reef.

What's the solution to overfishing underwritten by the tragedy of the commons? "Ultimately, the privatization of the resource is inevitable," says Shipp. Such privatization, however, means establishing meaningful and enforceable property rights. In the ocean, that seems easier said than done. Yet creating property rights in the ocean is not as far-fetched an idea as it may seem. There are numerous examples of how giving property rights to fishers has dramatically improved the health of ocean ecosystems while at the same time boosting the production of fish.

Michael De Alessi, director of the Center for Private Conservation at the pro-market Competitive Enterprise Institute, points to New Zealand, where fisheries were privatized in 1986. There, fishers get "individual tradeable quotas" (ITQs), which give them secure rights to a percentage of the catch of a particular species of fish. This gives them an incentive to increase the overall size of that species' population; the larger the total population, after all, the more fish they can catch and sell. The fishers achieve this by initially restricting their catches to create a larger, more sustainable breeding population. "When they have secure rights to the fish," says De Alessi, "the fishermen have done a tremendous job of ensuring that the fish are going to be there in the future."

Restoring Balance

In March, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an environmental group based in London, certified the Hoki fishery (the largest and most valuable New Zealand fishery) as "a well-managed and sustainable fishery." The MSC was founded in 1997 by the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, the European foods and consumer goods giant, as a way to encourage the creation of sustainable fisheries. MSC will certify a fishery only if it meets its standards for the maintenance and reestablishment of healthy populations of targeted fish, as well as standards for the maintenance of the integrity of ecosystems.

Another example of highly successful privatization of marine resources is in the state of Washington, where oyster beds in Willapa Bay are owned outright by the local oyster harvesters. Normally, fishers can't legally own tidelands, but Washington oyster harvesters laid claim to the tidelands before the state joined the union, so they were grandfathered in as private owners. "They have invested a lot in ensuring that the oyster population is healthy, that the water quality is healthy, and that the oyster industry is healthy," says De Alessi. For example, the Willapa Bay oyster growers proved that area pulp mills dumping sulfites into Willapa Bay were harming their oyster beds. As a result, they were able to get legislation passed to protect their property from pulp mill pollution.

Recently there have been signs that the U.S. Congress is waking up to the problems caused by 25 years of public-sector (read: political) management of our nation's fisheries. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) has introduced a bill that would begin a move toward privatizing some of America's fisheries, including the red snapper fishery. Her legislation would allow federal regional councils to create systems for issuing "individual fishery quotas." Such IFQs could be issued to individual boat captains, crew members, and individual fishers. However, the bill makes it clear that IFQs would not be property because they could be revoked without compensation at any time, and an IFQ could not be transferred or sold by its holder.

Despite such limitations, CEI's De Alessi is optimistic that the program would be a meaningful start to a true property rights system and with it, help for ailing fisheries. He believes that once IFQs are issued, fishers will figure out covert ways to trade them. De Alessi also expects that within five years there would be a black market in IFQs. Once fishers begin trading IFQs on a black market, De Alessi believes that they will demand to make such transfers legal, thus leading eventually to the full privatization of the fisheries.

In the meantime, The Reefmaker's David Walter points out: "We have leases where people can lease ground to grow oysters. Why can't they lease areas where people could build reefs and harvest fish?" Why not indeed?

The seas have been systematically overfished because of the tragedy of the commons. We've learned that the creation of artificial reefs increases the fish population, but they too will be overfished unless we take the next step of creating some form of ownership of these resources. To be sure, reef manufacturers such as David Walter—and fishers—will gain from privatization. But ultimately everyone will gain if marine ecosystems are made healthier and fish populations thrive.