Offshore anglers debate value of dilapidated oil rig structure in the Gulf of Mexico.

Above, a map of active oil rigs along the Gulf Coast.

A motion made at the recent Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting could be the first step to protecting what has been regarded as “the largest manmade reef in the world.” Floridians know it as the vast spattering of oil rigs and other energy-related structures in the offshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the oil rigs and structures are located off states west of Florida, though many anglers travel from ports such as Destin and Pensacola to fish the rigs.

Dr. Bob Shipp’s request to have Council staff clarify the definition of what qualifies as artificial structure could pave the way for rigs and other vital reefs to be classified as Essential Fish Habitat.

“For anglers who have been greatly concerned about the impact of this Administration’s directive to summarily remove all non-producing energy structures, this is a very welcome development,” said Pat Murray, president of Coastal Conservation Association. “This is a chance for the Gulf Council and NOAA Fisheries to take a stand to protect that habitat, and we are grateful to Dr. Shipp for presenting this opportunity.”

In a misdirected response to the Gulf oil spill, the U.S. Department of Interior issued a directive in October of 2010 ordering that all non-producing rigs be plugged and any remaining structure removed within five years of the issuance of that directive. There are approximately 3,500 offshore structures in the Gulf of Mexico and the directive, known as the Idle Iron Policy, would immediately impact roughly 650 structures that have not produced oil or gas within five years of the directive issue date of Oct. 15, 2010.

It’s hard to fault the feds for sending out the notice to all the major oil players after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the worst in U.S. history, dumping so much oil that exact numbers will probably never be known, though some estimates say at least 205 million gallons were dumped. An understandable backlash from the public occurred, wondering how operating regulations could be so lax to cause such a catastrophe. To have oil companies remove their leftover “trash” rigs, that no longer had a manufacturing use, was a logical start.

But there was something that the Secretary of the Interior may have not considered. As long as the rigs are plugged correctly, and are not leaking contaminates that can poison the surrounding waters, there is a definite purpose to the oil rig skeletons: fish habitat.

“Anglers have already noted with alarm the disappearance of some rigs that have been in place for
years that provided the base for flourishing ecosystems,” said Murray. “It is a completely avoidable tragedy, and we hope that the Council and NOAA Fisheries will do what it can to halt this needless destruction.”

Sen. David Vitter and Rep. Steve Palazzo have filed legislation that would prevent rigs and other structures from being summarily removed from the Gulf of Mexico. A decision by NOAA Fisheries to declare artificial structures Essential Fish Habitat would be a significant addition to legislative efforts.

In 2009, Dr. Shipp and Stephen Bortone published a paper on the importance of artificial habitat on the management of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico which credits the deployment of energy structures in the mid-20th century for greatly increasing the harvest potential of red snapper.

“If the habitat limitation hypothesis is correct, and I believe it is, then it would be necessary to maintain or even increase the amount of artificial habitat in the northern Gulf of Mexico to keep pace with fishing pressure,” said Dr. Shipp. “Taking it out makes no sense whatsoever.” To learn more about this issue, visit CCA’s Rigs to Reefs page.

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