After traveling 60 miles through an open expanse of the Gulf of Mexico, you see a small red speck on the horizon. You point your boat towards the object and the closer you get, a circular, red, cross-wired floating apparatus appears into focus. You ease even closer to read a bright white sign with red letters that reads ‘OKALOOSA 6 KEEP OFF’.
As you peer into the depths you can see that this apparatus extends almost 20 feet below the surface and the top half is filled with red buoys that are floating on the surface. The slight Gulf of Mexico current is pushing the apparatus to the south and the water moves around it like a river around a rock. Below the surface, there are hundreds of bar jacks, ocean triggers, and hardtails. It is like looking into a hundred-thousand gallon saltwater aquarium.
You have just arrived at one of the eight ‘Fish Attraction Devices’ or ‘Fish Aggregation Devices’, or ‘FADs’, as they are so aptly called that were deployed by Okaloosa County in late 2020. This network of FADs is appropriately named after former County Commissioner and long time Destin Captain, Kelly Windes who conceived the project and put it into motion. The reason why these devices are called FADs are because baitfish settle onto the buoy as a refuge from the open water. The baitfish will typically call this FAD their home until another piece of debris or sargassum floats by that the bait will then transfer to and vice versa. Imagine a gazelle in the desert that sees a single tree with shade after miles of walking. The gazelle is going to take refuge under that tree for as long as it possibly can, or until it becomes prey for a larger animal. This is the same sense that baitfish have when migrating across open expanses of water.
The Okaloosa FAD program was implemented to increase sportfishing opportunities for anglers out of Destin, although many boats access the FADs from other ports along the Florida Panhandle and Alabama, without the need to make 100+ mile runs to the Louisiana oil rigs. When the small baitfish find refuge here in 1,500-2,400 feet of water, the pelagic predators that are highly sought after by anglers are not far behind. On any given day at the FADs, anglers have the chance of catching blue marlin, white marlin, sailfish, tuna, mahi-mahi, and wahoo. There have even been reports of highly migratory giant bluefin tunas sighted here, which are a protected species in the Gulf of Mexico due to the area being classified as a spawning ground for the entire western Atlantic bluefin tuna stock.
These FADs are the first of their kind to be deployed in the continental United States and of the eight FADs, four (4) are full Japanese-made FADs and four (4) are generic steel chambers buoys similar to what is used to mark navigation channels. Just the presence of these buoys attract fish. The best way to describe the differences is that a full Japanese-made FAD’s primary use is to attract fish to them and they extend over 20 feet below the surface. This ideally will attract more bait fish than a purely surface-level FAD. The chambered ‘navigation-style’ buoys are more of a surface FAD although a heavy bridle and chain runs to a depth of 100ft before transitioning to a synthetic line.. Each type covers enough surface area and provides enough structure to be considered FADs, but you will more consistently find fish at the Japanese-made FADs since there is more structure for fish to hang around.
The 8 Okaloosa FADs are all labeled with a number. Below are what each of the FAD numbers are and their respective type.
FAD 1 - Yellow Navigation-Style Buoy
FAD 2 - Red Sub-Surface
FAD 3 - Red Sub-Surface
FAD 4 - Yellow Navigation-Style Buoy
FAD 5 - Yellow Navigation-Style Buoy (Broken Loose, to be Redeployed)
FAD 6 - Red Sub-Surface (Broken Loose, to be Redeployed)
FAD 7 - Red Sub-Surface
FAD 8 - Yellow Navigation-Style Buoy
These FADs are made to withstand hurricanes and normal wear and tear for 10years. And while they are designed to withstand the weather, they are NOT designed for boats to tie off to. The two FADs listed above that are marked as broken loose were partly due to negligent anglers that decided to tie up a few tons of fiberglass to the FAD. These are due to be redeployed in the next few months. We will update this article when the FADs have been redeployed.
If you have any questions about the Okaloosa FAD program, you can contact the Coastal Resources Manager Alex Fogg at email@example.com.