By Kelly Baughman
Artificial reefs are an important part of the conservation of our precious marine habitat here along the Gulf Coast. They not only constitute a shelter, but are also a valuable reproduction reservoir which can recreate a whole ecosystem in biological depleted zones. Walter Marine, aka The Reefmaker, is the largest artificial reef builder in the United States, having deployed over 40,000 reefs, and it’s right here in our own Orange Beach backyard.
Owner David Walter, a Mobile native, started the company in 1986 when local fisherman began hiring him to haul old cars out to a private locations to drop for personal fishing hotspots. “That turned into transporting and deploying things like school busses, airplane tail sections, semi-trailers, you name it…we sank it,” Walter said.
When the state stopped the use of cars for reefs, Walter knew he needed to come up with an alternative reef option. “I was lucky because I had this wealth of information coming back to me from my customers on what type of things worked as a reef and what didn’t. We went through several different designs, and finally came up with one that was large enough to satisfy a 30 passenger charter boat but was still easy to transport and environmentally safe,” he said.
With a new environmentally sound and efficient reef design now in his hands, Walter said the state of Florida and Alabama came calling. “As one of the only artificial reef companies in the country, and certainly the biggest, the state began using grant money to purchase reefs for public use. This was a great thing for us, because with the new regulations that were being put on fish limits, the private sector of our business was dwindling. It didn’t make sense for a private fisherman to spend that kind of money on a reef to only be able to catch two fish,” Walter explained.
Walter said he kept his company going during the slow times with the state grants that were coming in for things like snorkeling reefs and the sinking of ships for public use, but when the BP oil spill happened in 2010, things really took off for The Reefmaker.
Walter said, “When the BP grant money came in, the state of Alabama and Florida were very concerned about increasing the marine population and rehabilitating areas of the ecosystem that had been destroyed. The orders for our reefs came pouring in, and we had to ramp up production. We’ve been running as hard as we can to keep up.”
Walter believes his business was in the right place at the right time to be able to bid on the millions of dollars up for grabs by the BP recovery fund. “Luckily, we had a great design, a good reputation, and an established local business that they felt comfortable using rather than seeking companies outside the area,” Walter said. “It was a no brainer for them, and a big boost for us.”
Walter marine makes the reefs from start to finish in house from the mold, to pouring the concrete, to transporting the reef to the desired location, to dropping it and securing its location to withstand everything from changes in current to hurricane conditions.
In addition to fishing reefs and snorkeling reefs, Walter Marine makes personalized memorial reefs where families can have their loved ones ashes incorporated into a reef to be dropped at a private location. “We allow the family to personalize it any way they want. We’ve incorporated everything from Camaro steering wheels, to frying pans, to fishing reels. If you can think it, we can do it,” Walter said.
Another feature of Walter Marine’s artificial reefs that make them unique is they contain natural Limestone substrate from Perry, Florida with the perfect ph. that allows every animal that can live on a natural reef grow on the artificial one. “The material is soft enough that animals and organisms can bore into the substrate and colonize. Our reefs are as close to a natural reef as they come. No other reefmaker in the world can say that,” Walter added.
With all the things Walter Marine has accomplished in the reef world, it wasn’t long until television producers came calling. Walter Marine has been featured on Florida Sport Fishing Magazine, Florida Sportsman Magazine, Guy Harvey Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, Alabama Seaport Magazine, Bloomberg TV, PBS TV, and CBS.
Gurney Productions, responsible for shows like Duck Dynasty and Leah Remini: It’s All Relative, featured Walter Marine on The Weather Channel in ‘Reef Wranglers’, a docu-series following Walter, his son Stewart, and their team as they braved hurricane force winds, dangerous gulf conditions, and the sometimes hilarious pitfalls of the daily grind at Walter Marine.
While Walter said he is grateful for the attention the show brought to the business and the area, he felt it was best to part ways with the show after just one season. “When the crew was here to shoot, we were basically forced to shut down any real reef production. And it usually took them all day to shoot something that we usually do in fifteen minutes. It was frustrating to say the least,” Walter said. “We appreciated the show, but at the end of the day, we had important work to do so we chose to put that first.”
But Walter said that screen time may not be finished just yet for The Reefmaker. Walter opted to film a true reality docu-series, unscripted, about what Walter Marine actually does on a day to day basis. It will feature the building of the products, the sinking of the reefs, and the staff interaction as it really happens.
Walter said, “We will be streaming our new series on YouTube. We aren’t trying to make money on this show, we are simply trying to show people what we do, and showcase our products to potential clients.” He said he also wants to bring awareness to the truth about artificial reefs and the benefits they offer the ecosystem.
“The Red Snapper population was fished out completely at one point in the 1800’s, but when the appearance of oil rigs and artificial reefs began, the population came back with a vengeance. Artificial reefs provide a habitat, food, and breeding ground for many species of fish, and the numbers of fish are steadily increasing,” he said. “It’s a proven fact that artificial reefs increase the bio-mass of red snapper, and we have the research to prove it.”
What comes next for The Reefmaker is the sinking of two Biloxi casino river boats, a new chain of public snorkeling reefs, the new show, and thousands more public and private projects all over the Gulf Coast. Walter said, “We have the largest artificial reef system in the world right here in Alabama, and we are proud to have had a big part in making that a reality.”