Photo courtesy of Budd Riker www.lightinthesea.com

Photos courtesy of Budd Riker www.lightinthesea.com

As any offshore fisherman knows, oil and gas platforms, which were originally designed to tap into underground energy resources, have become havens for another vital resource – fish.  Mother Nature, always ruthlessly practical and efficient, has settled in. 

Even though there’s evidence that offshore platforms can be even more productive than natural reefs, there’s a cloud over this success story.  The oil industry is required by law to remove platforms after they cease production so that the ocean floor is returned to the way it was before the well was drilled. It’s a sensible enough plan, something every scout learned on campouts. Leave the campsite as it was before you came. Of course, in the case of oil rigs, this was before we discovered that they provided an incredible habitat for our ecosystem.

Fortunately for sport fishers, scuba divers and the sea life that inhabits the underwater structures, some forward thinking folks dreamed up the Rigs to Reefs program. RTR utilizes a regulatory exception so instead of full removal as was originally agreed upon, the main structure is cut off below the waterline. This allows enough clearance for boats and ships, but most of the structure, where the majority of the fish live, is left as an artificial reef.  

Because much less work is required to reef a platform than to fully remove it, that translates to massive cost savings for the oil industry.  It’s appears to be a rare but beautiful win-win between Big Oil and the Big Environment. But, things are not always as they appear. In California, instead of a common sense solution, Rigs to Reefs has been a political battleground for three decades. But we’ll get to that part later.

Offshore Oil Rig

As in the Gulf of Mexico, California’s rigs with their latticework of steel legs, beams and cross members provide hard substrate for a tremendous diversity of species. The cold, nutrient rich Pacific water fosters mussels, scallops, sea stars and brittle stars.  These man-made habitats are also home to sponges, bryozoa, corals and anemones, which encrust the steel in a display of psychedelic colors.  The invertebrates provide a beautiful backdrop, as well as a plentiful supply of food for California’s iconic rockfish that ordinarily live on rocky reefs.  In fact, 42 different species of rockfish find the platforms so hospitable that they live there in higher densities than on natural reefs, both as adults and as juveniles.  They grow faster at the platforms than on natural reefs and a recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that, “…the oil and gas platforms off the coast of California have the highest secondary fish production (growth in fish biomass from all sources) per unit area of seafloor than any marine habitat that has been studied.”

Recently, researchers collated extensive data for 16 platforms and compared it to other well-known ecosystems both in California and worldwide.  The results were published by the National Academy of Sciences in 2014. Compared to nearby rocky reefs at similar depths, fish production on the average platform is 27.4 times greater than on natural reefs.  When compared to other well-known marine ecosystems worldwide, including coral reefs and estuarine environments, generally regarded as the most productive ecosystems globally, the platforms are an order of magnitude greater in fish productivity.  

The reasons for this are well established. Most of the rocky reefs and other global ecosystems are low relief.  In contrast, the platforms extend through the entire water column and draw fish from a wider range of species and maturities.  Fish production on a platform occurs not only near the bottom but also in the mid-waters and at the surface.

As an example, rockfish like to live on shallow rocky reefs as juveniles and relocate to reefs in deeper water as they mature.  Juveniles living on a platform can move to deeper water without leaving.  This allows some species of fish to live their entire lives on a single platform.

Another reason for the platform’s higher productivity is that they provide more hard substrate than do rocky reefs per unit area of seafloor.  This is important for rockfish that require this substrate for both food and shelter.  With more substrate, the fish live in higher densities around platforms.

Even though the benefits of having these highly productive habitats in the marine environment are obvious and even though the fish production plays an important role in re-populating our depleted natural reef sites offshore, there’s still disagreement over whether they will stay or go. As with many battles, it all comes down to money. 

 California Artificial Reef Rig to Reef ProgramThe Back Story

In 1990, fishermen in Southern California realized how valuable the rigs were to the ecosystem. A small group began to explore how the sportfishing community might help to create a Rigs-To-Reefs program and avoid removal of such vital habitat. The issue caught the attention of Milt Shedd, co-founder of SeaWorld and founder of the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute (HSWRI). Shedd was a respected marine conservationist and owner of the American Fishing and Tackle Company (AFTCO) so it was in the best interest of his company to see the fishery prosper.

Unfortunately, the oil industry, specifically Chevron, wasn’t supporting RTR at the time because they were getting extreme pressure from the environmental community to remove the rigs. The environmentalist’s natural distrust of industry led them to suspect that Rigs-to-Reef was just another ploy Big Oil was using to save money at the expense of the environment.  They’d seen this type of misdirection before.

Their argument was the same as we’ve all heard before. That rigs just congregated fish that were in the area rather than grow new populations of fish. Since then, that theory has been largely disproved but in the early 1990s, even the scientific community didn’t agree.

That’s when Shedd, who had been joined by his son Bill and the American Sportfishing Association hoped the science could prove their point.

“Our message was simple,” Bill Shedd said in a recent interview.  “We wanted to focus on what was best for the ocean and our state and not remove an offshore platform until a scientific study had been completed.  If it was shown that the marine resource was better off if the rig was removed, then it should be removed.  However, if scientific studies showed it was better for the ocean and the fish to keep some portion of the underwater structure in place, then it should stay.”  

As each year passed the science increasingly pointed to the habitat value of the rigs.   In 1999 the California Artificial Reef Enhancement Committee Foundation (CARE) was formed. Momentum was building. Milt Shedd was able to help organize a RTR symposium at UCLA so experts could take a serious look at the science.  That event and others, along with an increasing amount of research led to more interest in a RTR program for California.  It also drew special attention from State Senator DeDe Alpert, who authored a workable piece of legislation to finally create a RTR program.  

The bill outlined how Rigs to Reef might best work in California and set aside a significant amount of money for marine resource enhancement and research efforts. In 2001, the Alpert bill passed both houses of the California legislature by a wide margin, yet Governor Gray Davis vetoed the bill at the urging of the environmental community.  More than a decade had passed during which time the unsightly tops of the platforms could have been removed leaving vibrant reefs below the surface. Politics had prevailed and the Pacific fishery was further at risk.

Fast forward to the present. In 2010 another RTR bill was passed. However, it was extremely complicated and set up a labyrinth-like permitting process with built-in time limits on the industry but none on the permitting agencies.  The oil industry was concerned that any savings from reefing would be lost on having to follow an overly complicated regulatory process, payments to the state and payouts to environmental groups. Plus, the industry will be left with a legacy structure for which it will have continuing liability.

For all of these reasons, the oil industry has not been willing to commit a single rig into the program.  What began as a win-win had turned into a lose-lose. 

At present a new bill is being proposed to try and fix problems with the 2010 bill.  Timing could not be better for the fishing and diving community. In March, the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) launched a successful effort to form CCA California. The CCA has had a great deal of success with helping to create RTR programs in other states and is helping with the California process.  

What began more than 20 years ago may finally become a workable RTR program to help provide California waters with habitat it so desperately needs to conserve. Time will tell whether politics will get in the way of a proven and effective method of enhancing the ocean environment.

Gulf of Mexico 

Turning rigs into reefs has become an accepted practice to address obsolete platforms in the Gulf of Mexico for several decades. Since 1985 about 450 rigs have been “reefed” in Gulf waters. About two-thirds of these have been off the coast of Louisiana. Still, this is only a fraction of eligible reefs in the region. In June of 2013, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), updated the rules by which proposals for the Rigs to Reef program are evaluated, easing some previous restrictions. This included reducing the minimum five mile zone between reefs to two miles and providing extensions for the deadlines oil companies normally face in dealing with a decommissioned rig. 

The program, largely viewed as a success in the Gulf, still has its detractors. Commercial fishing operations that rely on trawling dislike the reefs, seeing them as a hazard to fishing gear and effectively limiting their available fishing grounds. Despite objections from this part of the fishing industry, the rule changes of 2013 were enacted and the programs have continued. 

Watch this video on the Gulf of Mexico’s Rigs to Reefs program:


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