What started as a high school student’s Eagle Scout project to provide habitats for fish and improve water quality on the Gulf Coast has expanded exponentially with the help of a city, a university and an environmental group.
John Shell, 17, a senior at St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Mobile, decided after he witnessed first-hand the decline of fish populations to place artificial reefs in Mobile Bay. He initially aimed to place 50 reefs, but he announced in July 2023 that he placed 175 reefs and raised over $52,000.
“I wanted to change that because everyone should be able to come down to Mobile or to coastal Alabama, whether they live here or (are a) tourist, and be able to enjoy the amazing experience of catching a fish,” Shell said at a July press conference in Point Clear.
Now, the city of Fairhope has gotten in on the project and plans to deploy 14 Eagle Reefs at city-owned locations to foster habitats for fish, crabs and oysters. The man-made reefs, which measure a little more than two cubic feet, will also be installed under the piers of 36 homeowners along the Bay.
The Eagle Reef project also partnered with The Partners of Environmental Progress (PEP) and The University of South Alabama (USA) in July, and they have plans to expand Shell’s impact.
“The reefs installed this week have helped us hit the first milestone of the expanded Eagle Reef project,” said PEP Executive Director Jennifer Denson in a Nov. 16 release. “Our member businesses are committed to funding more reefs to improve the quality of our waters and fisheries.”
PEP is continuing its goal of installing 1,000 total Eagle Reefs across the Alabama coast, which they say will filter up to 10 billion gallons of water each year.
The project’s partnership with USA is also allowing their school of marine and environmental sciences to help monitor and report on the health of the Eagle Reefs and the quality of the water around them.
While they may not look like much, these reefs made of plastic, PVC pipes and rope have a meaningful impact on the Mobile Bay ecosystem by giving sea creatures a place to call home.
When the project began, Shell purchased the reefs from the Florida company Ocean Habitats preassembled. Within six months of installation, the reefs teem with the oysters, barnacles, fish and crabs of Mobile Bay.
Coral reefs have been in decline around the world for years. According to the United Nations, there was a loss of about 14% of the coral on the ocean floor between 2009 and 2018. This is primarily due to “bleaching,” which occurs when coral becomes exposed to high temperatures and sunlight.
On the Alabama coast, however, reefs harboring oysters have been depleted due to erosion and sedimentation, drought, predation, and harvesting, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation says. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill and related cleanup efforts also took a toll on Mobile Bay’s reefs.
Reef restoration projects have been ongoing by many organizations in Mobile Bay long before Eagle Reef came along, this allows anyone with Bay access to help improve the environment in which they live.
“Sometimes adults can over complicate situations. Sometimes we can’t get out of our own way. Sometimes we need a new angle,” said George Hunter, economic development manager for Spire Energy, a company that provides natural gas service along the coast.
Those who are interested in getting their hands on an Eagle Reef, including businesses, nonprofits and individuals, can purchase or use donations to “adopt” one on the PEP website.