Rigs-to-Reefs Builds Needed Habitat for Gulf Seafood

by / Newsroom Ink on November 25, 2013
The Gulf of Mexico lacks natural reefs. A program benefiting the marine environment by recycling retired natural gas and oil structures as artificial reefs. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

The Gulf of Mexico lacks natural reefs. A program benefiting the marine environment by recycling retired natural gas and oil structures as artificial reefs. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

by Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

A program benefiting the marine environment of the Gulf of Mexico by recycling retired natural gas and oil structures as artificial reefs would enhance fish habitat benefiting recreational and commercial fishermen, scuba divers and Gulf communities.

Fish

Rigs-to-Reefs is a nationwide program to turn decommissioned offshore oil and petroleum rigs into artificial reefs. Photo: GOMF

The Gulf of Mexico lacks natural reefs. Rigs-to-Reefs is a nationwide program to turn decommissioned offshore oil and petroleum rigs into artificial reefs. The program was developed by the former Minerals Management Service, now Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In 1938 Pure and Superior Oil companies built the first freestanding drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico. The 320-foot by 180-foot freestanding wooden deck stood in 14-feet of water a mile offshore from Creole, LA.

With the appearance of that first Gulf rig, fishermen found they caught more fish near platforms. Subsequent research over the decades has determined the platforms act as artificial reefs, attracting and enhancing fish populations.

Coral Globally Threatened Species

Described as the “rainforest of the ocean” because of its incredible biological diversity, coral is a globally threatened species, and the natural habitat they form is under stress.

Shipp

“The can’t be just left there, the best alternative is to cut them off, roll them over, and let them to continue to function as an artificial reef,” explained Robert Shipp, Ph.D. of the University of South Alabama’s Department of Marine Sciences. Photo: GOMF

Artificial rigs mimic the highly productive eco systems occurring on natural coral reef.

At it peek, more than 4,500 offshore petroleum platforms supplied approximately 25 percent of the United States’ production of natural gas and 10 percent of its oil.

“Right now there are approximate 3000 rig structures in the Gulf of Mexico producing biological biomass and bio-diversity, ” said Quenton Dokken Ph.D., CEO of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation.  “It is an incredible resource.  These towers of life provide a home for sponges, hydroids, mollusks and fishes of every description. A cornucopia of life.”

Rig7A reef, natural or artificial, is a structure that captures, collects and magnifies energy and nutrients, then the through reproduction and the food web, exports that energy and nutrients.   As long as the structure is left uninterrupted, they are perpetual motion machines.

Recycling rig as artificial reefs has proven an effective tool for fishery management. Fish, fishermen, divers, fishing support industries, coastal communities, the petroleum industry and others benefit when obsolete production platforms continue to be used as fishery enhancement resources.

The first Rigs-to-Reefs conversion took place in 1979 when an Exxon experimental subsea template from offshore Louisiana was transported to a permitted artificial reef site off the Florida coast. To date, more than 100 offshore structures have been converted to permanent reefs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Benefiting Coastal Communities

The program also benefits coastal communities with increased commercial and recreational fishing, as well as recreational scuba diving and tourism.

Divers from across the U.S. and Canada regularly make the trip to the Gulf.  The oil and gas platforms are unique structures fostering an abundance of aquatic life, including the whale shark, which loves to interact with the platform.

“Recreational diving is the biggest part of our business,” said Captain Bland Ellen of Fling Charters of Freeport,TX. Photo: GOMF

“Recreational diving is the biggest part of our business,” said Captain Bland Ellen of Fling Charters of Freeport,TX. Photo: GOMF

“Recreational diving is the biggest part of our business,” said Captain Bland Ellen of Fling Charters of Freeport,TX. “We bring out more than 1000 people out a year to enjoy the reefs.  From a diver’s perspective you just can’t get any better than that.

As offshore platforms reach the end of their useful lives, fishermen and marine biologists expressed concern about the loss of the enhanced fish habitat they create. Until the mid-1980s, platforms had to be completely removed at the end of their productive life; disrupting the thriving seafood communities that had been created beneath the platform.

Reusing Obsolete Platforms

Louisiana was the first state to develop a program to reuse obsolete oil and gas platforms as artificial reefs, followed later by Texas. The number of offshore rigs, their design, longevity and stability has provided a number of advantages over the use of traditional artificial reef materials.

These artificial reefs could play an important role in the future sustainability of the Gulf of Mexico and the quality of life if people who live along its shores.

Shell Guy

“We have to abide by time limits to get these structures out of the water,” said Shell Marine Scientist Louis Brzuzy, Ph.D.

“We are at a phase where a majority of the platforms on the Continental shelf are coming to the end of their production,” said Dokken “We are seeing an escalated rate of removal. Once they are taken out, we will never see them back her again.”

The current policy of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which holds jurisdiction over the outer continental shelf, is structures must be removed or converted into an artificial reefs in areas designated by the government.  An idle platform can cost more than $250,000 per year for an oil company to maintain.

“We have to abide by time limits to get these structures out of the water,” said Shell Marine Scientist Louis Brzuzy, Ph.D. “We have to get permits and authorization for decommissioning strategies like artificial reefs. All that factors in, as well as cost and liability, to how we decide whether a platform is suitable of artificial reefing or not.”

Economic Saving for Companies

The rig-to-reef program can be an economic saving for participating companies converting the structure into reef, even with the required donation to operate the program.

Current rig removal options include:

  • Partial Removal: The top portion of the submerged platform is removed and sat on the sea floor for reef habitat.
  • Cut and Tow: Sever the structure from the sea floor and tow it to a state-approved reef habitat location.
  • Full Removal: Platform is severed at the sea floor and completely removed, destroying the reef habitat.

“We have all the intergovernmental look at talking for the first time about this, but the problem is that it takes time, and every day another structure is being removed. If we could get the to stop and address how these structures should be reefed, we can save some habitat and part of our way of life,” said Mike Nugent of the Port Aransas, TX Boatman Association. Photo: GOFM

“They can’t be just left there, the best alternative is to cut them off, roll them over, and let them to continue to function as an artificial reef,” explained Robert Shipp, Ph.D. of the University of South Alabama’s Department of Marine Sciences. “To a fisheries scientist the options are very clear, let’s convert them to a permanent artificial reef structures.”

Currently the government is requiring idle oil and gas structures to be immediately removed.  The removal has been at such an accelerated rate, especially along the Texas coast, that it has jeopardized once fertile fishing grounds

“We have all the intergovernmental  talking for the first time about this, but the problem is that it takes time, and every day another structure is being removed. If we could get them to stop and address how these structures should be reefed, we can save some habitat and part of our way of life,” said Mike Nugent of the Port Aransas Boatman Association.

Commercial Fishermen See Impact

Commercial fishermen who depend on the Gulf for their livelihood have seen a definite impact from rigs being removed, often within a matter of days.

“We need to leave these reefs in place,” said Galveston fisherman Buddy Guindon, owner of Katie’s Seafood. “The rate of removal has been so accelerated that fertile fishing areas surrounding a rig might be there one week, and the rig and the fish gone the next.

“We need to leave these reefs in place,” said Galveston fisherman Buddy Guindon, owner of Katie’s Seafood. “The rate of removal has been so accelerated that fertile fishing areas surrounding a rig might be there one week, and the rig and the fish gone the next.” Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

“We need to leave these reefs in place,” said Galveston fisherman Buddy Guindon, president of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance and owner of Katie’s Seafood. “The rate of removal has been so accelerated that fertile fishing areas surrounding a rig might be there one week, and the rig and the fish gone the next.  When the food source provide by the infrastructure of the rig is gone, the fish will leave the area.”

According to Dr. Shipp, the breathe of the problem is something that people don’t understand.  The artificial structures in the Gulf have drastically increased production in the various fisheries.

Intergovernmental communication problems lie at the root of the Rigs-To-Reefs program. Finding a way to coordinate the activities of all the various stakeholders involved has been problematic.

“Communication has been a huge problem, when we get the together everyone agrees that we ought to be doing this, but the question is how do we make that happen,” said Larry McKinney, Ph.D., executive director of the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M Corpus Christi.

Quenton

“Right now there are approximate 3000 rig structures in the Gulf of Mexico producing biological biomass and bio-diversity, ” said Quenton Dokken Ph.D., CEO of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation and one of the divers on the video. Photo: GOMF

According to Dr. Dokken, the key for the programs success will be breaking down the bureaucracies and get everyone out of their “stove pipe” focus to examine the bigger picture.  Both state and federal agencies need to partner in order to speed up the process of permitting artificial reef sites.

A recently released interim policy document by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, now allows Gulf states more flexibility in reefing, as well as extension to regulatory decommissioning deadlines. “This is about the eco system in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Jim Watson, the bureau’s director.

For more than 75 years, the Gulf of Mexico has become home to the largest concentration of artificial reefs in the world – oil and gas platforms.  As these platforms come to the end of their production life, the Rigs-to-Reefs program is committed to bring together involved stakeholders to formulate a strategy to sustain and maintain these structures as a benefit to the natural productivity of the Gulf’s ecosystem.


 

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About the Author

About the Author: Ed Lallo is the former editor of Gulf Seafood News and CEO of Newsroom Ink, an online brand journalism agency. .

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