Four new gulf reefs being built

Three sheepshead swim near reefballs deployed on an existing artificial reef site. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Ferguson/LDWF)
Three sheepshead swim near reefballs deployed on an existing artificial reef site. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Ferguson/LDWF)

Construction could begin in spring, pending approval

Anglers will soon have four new prime areas to target speckled trout and redfish — if a permit filed by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in January is ultimately approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Construction of four new artificial reefs in and around Lake Borgne and the Biloxi Marsh — the Shell Pad Reef, Grand Banks Reef, Cabbage Reef and West Karako Bay Reef — could start as early as this spring depending on permit approval, weather and contractor availability, according to Ashley Ferguson, inshore artificial reef biologist with the LDWF.

“I’m excited,” Ferguson said. “I think they’re going to be really great fishing spots, and we also plan to have these reefs off-limits to oyster harvests, so that’s going to have them serve as a sort of brood stock for the surrounding oyster population, an added benefit.”

The project, a partnership between the LDWF and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, allows for each site to expand up to about 10 acres in size. But Ferguson said initially, each reef will be about 1 acre, made up of large limestone chunks, shells and reefballs.

“That leaves a lot of room for us to go in and put more material in the future,” she said. “Adding hard substrate to areas with that soft bottom is going to be very beneficial for those settling organisms, and will establish a location for that food chain to set up and enhance fishing opportunities, which is the whole mission of the Artificial Reef Program.”

The total construction cost for the project is expected to be about $300,000, which will be split between the foundation and the LDWF, she said.

‘We’re paying for half, and they’re paying for half,” Ferguson said. “Our half comes from the Artificial Reef Trust Fund.”

Several factors, including water temperature, rainfall and larval availability in the system, help determine how quickly fish are attracted to a reef, but Ferguson said it can happen relatively quickly.

“Settlement usually happens pretty fast with organisms like mussels and barnacles and things like that,” she said. “Then that draws the cryptic species of fish and crabs that look for crevices in those rocks — they’ll typically start hiding in there pretty soon after the material is deployed, like within a month. Food will start to develop in the spring and throughout the summer, which then draws in predatory fish that anglers are seeking.”

This map shows the four proposed artificial reef sites currently being considered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. If the permit for the reefs is ultimately approved, Ashley Ferguson with the LDWF expects construction of the sites to begin later this spring.
This map shows the four proposed artificial reef sites currently being considered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. If the permit for the reefs is ultimately approved, Ashley Ferguson with the LDWF expects construction of the sites to begin later this spring. (Map courtesy of LDWF)

Plans call for 50 reef balls to be used at the Lake Borgne site, which is being constructed over an existing shell pad. The other three sites will feature 30 reef balls each, which Ferguson described as perforated concrete domes, almost like a cement whiffle ball. The Grand Banks, Cabbage and West Karako Bay sites will be composed of three rows of 2- to 3-foot high limestone in depths ranging from 8 to 10 feet, according to the permit.

With the addition of these four sites, Ferguson said that brings the total number of inshore artificial reefs statewide to 33, and additional projects are slated for 2019. The permit for these four has already been approved by the state’s Department of Natural Resources, so all that remains now is the Corps’ blessing.

“We’ve been planning these for quite a while, so very soon after we have the permit in hand I expect we’ll start deployment,” she said. “And these four are really accessible, too. That’s one thing we always try to make sure of — that the reefs are in areas where people can get out there and reasonably fish them.”

The U.S. Coast Guard will ultimately determine if the reefs will be marked with permanent buoys, Ferguson said, or if anglers will have to rely on updated NOAA charts or GPS coordinates to locate the sites.