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No trespassing/no fishing sign on wharf

All along Alabama’s rivers, lakes, bayous, and bays, towns small and large rely on water access to support their economies. The state, therefore, is taking steps to ensure that there is water access for traditional uses for its future generations.

Transportation, sport fishing, seafood processing, and canoeing are among the many uses of Alabama’s waterways. In the cities and towns along Alabama’s many miles of waterfront, the way of life depends on waterfront access, and the economic web spun here stretches wide across the state. Shrimpers, for example, buy their ice and gasoline from service stations and have their nets repaired by specialized weavers. The Alabama Port Authority employs hundreds across the state, and commercial and charter fishermen alike need waterfront space to dock their boats.

Entire economies of some small towns depend on access to waterways for traditional business uses, and water-related activities make a large impact on the state’s economy. Close to 50,000 jobs (between 5 and 15 percent of the state’s employment) along the Alabama coast were created by tourism and recreation. The annual commercial fisheries landing statistics for Alabama in 2009 include more than 29.5 million pounds, with a landed value of over $40.5 million. The two nationally ranked commercial fishery ports in Alabama are Bayou La Batre, with 19 million pounds landed annually and a landed value of over $36 million, and Bon Secour-Gulf Shores, with 5 million pounds landed annually and a landed value of over $7 million. In 2010, there were 271,377 boat registrations and more than 486,000 recreational and commercial water-related fishing licenses issued in Alabama. The Port of Mobile is ranked the ninth largest port in the U.S. and has an economic impact of $10.3 billion for the state of Alabama. Combined, the Alabama, Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint, and the Tennessee River Systems, and Tennessee-Tombigbee and Warrior-Tombigbee Waterways have an economic impact of over $23 billion and ship more than 85 million tons each year.

Shrimp boats at fueling dock

Shrimp boats at fueling dock

The Issue

These regions, however, are not the only ones interested in waterfront property. Regions experiencing the most growth include Auburn-Opelika (12.1%), Huntsville (9.6%), Montgomery (8.7%), and Mobile (8.1%) According to the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama, it is estimated that by 2025, the combined coastal population of Alabama will exceed 690,000 people, a 76.9 percent increase in Baldwin County and a 10.9 percent increase in Mobile County. Since 2000, Mobile, Baldwin, Jefferson, Madison, and Shelby counties have seen a combined increase of 89 percent in their populations, a combined increase of 27 percent in their per capita incomes, and a combined increase of 15 percent in the number of housing units. This increase in population and demand for waterfront housing has increased development of property for nontraditional uses, which threatens to squeeze out traditional uses by taking away potential access areas and driving up land costs and taxes. This growth, coupled with current economic downturns, is threatening water-dependent businesses. It is necessary, therefore, to plan for this demand and balance the needs of different users.

Addressing the Problem

Though many states are just beginning to discuss waterfront access issues, Alabama has already begun taking steps to address them, being the second state, following North Carolina, to create a Legislative Committee. Seated in 2009, the Alabama Waterfront Access Study Committee (WASC) set about the tasks of defining the issues and recommending incentive-based management tools to alleviate pressure on the waterfronts of Alabama.

Defining the Issue

After examining water access issues in Alabama and many other states, the WASC in its final report to the Alabama Legislature in 2010 defined working waterfronts as “commercial facilities that require direct access to or location on, over, or adjacent to Alabama’s coastal public trust waters, submerged lands, and inland streams, rivers, and lakes. The term includes public waterfront access facilities that may be open to the public, offer access by vessels to State waters and lands, or support facilities for recreational, commercial, research, or government vessels.” Examples include, but are not limited to, commercial fishing facilities, including seafood processing facilities, wet and dry marinas, commercial or public docks, boat construction facilities, boat haul out and repair facilities, recreational fishing facilities including fishing piers, facilities engaged in or offering boating for hire (charter, head, and tour boats), and facilities that require direct use or flow of coastal or inland waters, including wharf areas for marine aquaculture operations and product transport.

Recommendations to the Legislature

In its final report, the WASC made 13 recommendations for adoption by the legislature. Detailed below, these recommendations are to promote planning and study in order to create a balance of waterfront uses. The recommendations address four issue areas: planning and zoning, financial incentives, socio-economics, and infrastructure.

Planning/Zoning Issues

• Complete a Comprehensive Working Waterfront plan as defined and enacted by any federal legislation, for example, the “Keep America’s Waterfronts Working Act of 2009” [HR2548]. A working waterfront plan would allow Alabama to fully understand the status and impacts of waterfronts and to be positioned favorably if federal funding becomes available.
• Create a Waterfronts Alabama Partnership program. Modeled after the Waterfronts Florida Partnership, this organization would help state agencies, counties and municipalities, and other community planners incorporate working waterfront and water access issues into planning and implementation efforts.
• Seek legislative approval for the waiver of emergency permit fees for rebuilding waterfront properties after declared natural disasters. This action would decrease immediate economic pressure on water-dependent businesses in the aftermath of natural disasters.

Financial Incentive Issues

• Create incentives for working waterfront businesses.
• Establish a fund for the acquisition of property for working waterfront and waterfront access properties. This technique has been employed successfully in other states using public-private partnerships to acquire waterfront properties to create access for both recreational and commercial uses.
• Identify high-priority working waterfront areas and encourage funding under future Coastal Impact Assistance Programs or other federal funding mechanisms.
• Enable the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to increase boating registration fees and/or annually using the consumer price index (CPI) to make adjustments in boater registration due to inflation, with such funds to be used to maintain and/or increase the number of marine police officers on Alabama waterways and for other working waterfront related duties of the Marine Police Division. This measure would allow the Alabama marine police to fully patrol and protect all water users.

Workers walking on dock beside shrimp boats

Socio-Economic Issues

• Conduct a statewide economic inventory of working waterfronts and waterfront access.
• Conduct an economic impact study of Alabama’s working waterfronts. The WASC found that the full existence and impact of water-dependent business in Alabama is not fully known. This recommendation, as well as the one above, would allow for the studies needed to determine the impact.
• Enable the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium to provide technical assistance and support to waterfront stakeholders in sustainable business practices, and to provide public education on the economic, environmental, and societal importance of working waterfronts to
the State.
• Encourage continued commercial use associated with working waterfronts to better reflect economic values of shipping on waterways.

Infrastructure Issues

• Direct all state agencies to expand public access to waters in project planning and construction programs.
• Encourage federal and local agencies to incorporate public waterfront access and/or facilities in projects with access to public trust waters of the state of Alabama, for example, boat access and bank fishing.


Access to waterways is directly related to Alabama’s economy and quality of life. Land use demands change over time, but efforts should be made to maintain a balance of traditional and non-traditional uses.



This publication was supported by the National Sea Grant College Program of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under NOAA Grant # NA10OAR4170078, the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium and Auburn University. The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of any of those organizations. MASGP-11-022.

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