Mobile Bay Fisheries Habitat to Be Enhanced

Habitat for fish in Mobile Bay will soon be better as a result of a cooperative project between the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, ExxonMobil Production Company and wildlife enthusiast Bill Ireland.

The $200,000 project involves the placement of limestone rock around the bases and mooring pilings of several nearshore natural gas rigs. “Placement of this material will provide excellent habitat for fisheries in the Bay and will greatly enhance recreational fishing opportunities,” said Conservation Commissioner Riley Boykin Smith.

When natural gas drilling operations began in Mobile Bay, a beneficial development occurred. As the platforms were installed, they were stabilized with a variety of materials including shell and concrete. This created a more complex substrate than the sand/clay mud normally found over much of the area. As a result, different marine animals were attracted, which created a food web that supported a variety of fish, such as speckled trout and redfish. The resulting enhanced fishing did not go unnoticed by fishermen, and thousands of angler trips are made to these platforms each year. Over time, winter storms and hurricanes moved or buried this shell and the fishing has declined.

The project is funded under the federal Coastal Impact Assistance Program (CIAP), and is being facilitated by the Alabama Marine Resources Division. The purpose of the CIAP, authorized by Congress in fiscal year 2001 administered by the State Lands Division, is to assist states and local communities in mitigating the impacts of Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas development and production. Congress appropriated $150 million under the CIAP to the seven offshore oil- and gas-producing states of Alabama, Alaska, California, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

As part of the cooperative effort, ExxonMobil will provide divers to locate lines to help determine the exact placement of the enhancement material. Bill Ireland has agreed to donate 1,000 cubic yards of rock to be placed on the Bay floor around the gas rigs. “This is a wonderful cooperative project between the public and private sector,” said Smith.

Conservation officials say this CIAP project will enhance as many platforms as possible depending on the bids received. Additional enhancements are planned over the next few years as funds become available.

In addition to the ecological functions of fish habitats, they also support critical economic benefits. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), recreational and commercial fishing annually contribute billions of dollars to the U.S. economy. In 1998, commercial fishing in the U.S. generated an estimated $3.1 billion in dockside revenues. Additionally, marine recreational fishing contributes an estimated $7 billion to the U.S. economy annually in boats, fishing equipment, travel and other related expenditures.

According to the Department of Conservation, this fisheries habitat enhancement project is just one of many that will be funded under CIAP. Other projects will include coastal access, management, research, shoreline erosion control and stabilization, education and community outreach.