2024 Eagle Scout Project of the Year: He built 150 artificial reefs to clean water, attract sea life

John Shell and his father Jeb have fished together since John was little. They know where fish like to congregate. They know many techniques and strategies for reeling in keepers. They know it’s a fun hobby, especially when you’re catching fish.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t happening during one Troop 147 campout.

“I saw that they weren’t enjoying it,” John says of his fellow Scouts from Mobile, Ala. “We were on a fishing campout – and we weren’t catching any fish. That led me down the rabbit hole of looking for a project.”

John developed an ambitious plan to install 100 miniature reefs in Alabama coastal communities to attract fish and other sea life. Not only could anglers and nature lovers enjoy these reefs, but they’d attract barnacles, oysters and other filter feeder species that could filter 10 million gallons of water a year.

When he was finished, the project had grown to 150 reefs and was passed over to a local nonprofit and university, which aim to continue installing hundreds more reefs and studying the environmental benefits.

For his exceptional efforts, John, 19 and now a student at Dartmouth College, received the 2024 Glenn A. and Melinda W. Adams National Eagle Scout Service Project of the Year Award.

The Adams awards, which include territorial winners and a national winner selected from one of those territorial winners, recognize outstanding Eagle projects completed by young people who earned the Eagle Scout rank in 2023. The national winner receives a $3,500 scholarship, which they can use for their future education or to attend a national or international Scouting event.

Fishing for support

John’s Eagle Scout project wouldn’t just improve one aspect of the area; it would impact several: business, recreation and the local environment, for example. He reached out to individuals, businesses, non-profits and state agencies for support.

John figured he’d need to raise $25,000 to buy reef kits from a Florida biologist, rope to secure the reefs in the water and lifejackets for volunteers since they’d need to get in the water to install them.

The floating reefs, costing $300 each at first, were an assemblage of PVC pipe and corrugated polypropylene, tied to docks. Some the biologist mailed were already assembled, but John and his volunteers would have to put together others.

Barnacles and oysters attach themselves to the artificial reefs, which in turn attracts more wildlife.

“It’s like a shrimp and fish hotel,” John says. “You’ll get more game fish closer to the gulf versus some rivers. It usually takes about six months for everything to fill up with oysters, mussels, clams and barnacles. It’ll attract shrimp and minnows, and all the big fish will start hanging around there, too.”

John bought 100 kits, but when word got out about his plans thanks to local news stories, more donations began pouring in.

“It kind of skyrocketed, which was shocking,” he says.

He soon had enough to install 50 more reefs.

Installing the reefs

With help from volunteers at his church, school and troop, John arranged a couple of workdays to build the reefs.

“It took almost less than an hour to make one,” he says. “You could even have a picture and figure it out. Overall, the kit was really easy to put together.”

The tricky part came in putting them in the water.

“You have to get in the water unless you’re on a kayak,” John says. “They float, so you put them in and you tie ropes to them and to the pilings around them. It usually takes 15 to 20 minutes to put one in with all the knots you have to do.”

But once they’re secured, they should stay. Some reefs have survived hurricanes and don’t require careful maintenance for years, John says.

Within a few months, the impact was clear.

“One family – I went to school with their daughter – they were catching fish like crazy and even saw a manatee,” John says. “Not sure if it was the reef or not. But everywhere they’re full of stuff and people are saying how much of an impact it’s having.”

A local legacy

John’s project continues as local governments have shown interest in it; the city of Fairhope raised money to place reefs on all its public docks. The non-profit Partners for Environmental Progress and the University of South Alabama’s Stokes School of Marine and Environmental Sciences have taken over managing the project. Together, they plan to install 1,000 artificial reefs. They are close to 300 installed now.

Under the guidance of Sean Powers, the director of the Stokes School of Marine and Environmental Sciences, marine biology students will use the reefs in their studies. The Partners for Environmental Progress sees this project as helping clean the coastal waters and repopulating places with wildlife.

“I learned a lot about how much people want to help; the community involvement is really amazing,” John says. “It gave me a new perspective of what it means to be a community. It helps the environment; it helps industry; it boosts the experience of tourists, too. It’s a win-win situation.”

How to nominate an Eagle Scout for the Adams Award

If you know an Eagle Scout whose project is worthy of consideration for the Eagle Scout Service Project of the Year award, please nominate them.

Find a nomination form, judging criteria and more information at this link.

Any Eagle Scout, their parents or any registered volunteer (with the Eagle Scout’s permission) may submit an Eagle Scout service project for consideration. Each council will then nominate one outstanding project to the National Eagle Scout Association.


About Michael Freeman 446 Articles
Michael Freeman, an Eagle Scout, is an associate editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines.