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Reef madness 

Kari Dequine Harden on the fight to save offshore oil platforms and the ecosystems they support

click to enlarge Hell Diver Terry Migaud swims with a loggerhead sea turtle around a drilling platform that has become home to fish, coral and the creatures that feed on them.

Photo by Toby Armstrong

Hell Diver Terry Migaud swims with a loggerhead sea turtle around a drilling platform that has become home to fish, coral and the creatures that feed on them.

The men gathered in a Kenner garage for their monthly meeting look more like Marines on leave than environmental activists. But when the talk turns from catching large cobia, snapper, sheepshead and spadefish to removing idle offshore oil and gas production platforms, members of the Hell Divers' Spearfishing Club become passionate — about saving the platforms and the prolific ecosystems that have developed around them.

  Members of the Hell Divers, a local club that promotes sport diving and underwater spearfishing, travel around the world. Some of the best fishing anywhere, they say, is around platforms that have stood in the Gulf of Mexico for several decades. In the last few years, however, an increasing number of their favorite fishing grounds have disappeared because of what they call "outdated" legislation and bureaucracy that requires platforms no longer in use to be removed and the ocean floor returned to its pre-drilling state. When the legislation was drafted in 1970, no one foresaw that those abandoned platforms would become the backbone of not only coral reefs but an entire marine biosphere.

  "I saw more tropical fish in 10 minutes at a rig (in the Gulf of Mexico) than in 10 days in Honduras," Hell Diver Stan Smith says.

  Paul Cozic, president of the Metairie-based Hell Divers, says the U.S. government should issue a moratorium on removing platforms until the law catches up with science. The extraction of the decommissioned platforms, however, continues because of a complex set of circumstances including liability, financial gain, public perception and a lack of awareness.

  The platforms are the very reason Louisiana is recognized as having some of the best sport fishing in the country, Cozic says. There is evidence to back up his claim. In an interview in 2012, Bob Shipp, a member of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, said that during the first 100 years that red snapper were harvested from the Gulf, all of the fish originated east of Mobile Bay, Ala. Now, 70 percent of the annual snapper harvest comes from west of Mobile Bay, closer to Louisiana.

  "The only thing that changed was that they put the (oil and gas) rigs in," Cozic says. Hell Divers say they believe the snapper already are moving toward Florida as more platforms are removed, because recently they have caught more snapper in Florida than in Louisiana's offshore waters.

  And the pace of removal is picking up.

  "The Gulf of Mexico will lose a third of its 3,600 offshore oil and gas platforms in the next 5 years," according to an analysis published in 2011 by EcoRigs, a nonprofit organization based in Baton Rouge that seeks to change policies concerning platform removals. "They create one of the most prolific ecosystems, by area, on the planet. It is estimated that the removal of 1,250 platforms will destroy 1,875 acres of coral reef habitat and 7 billion invertebrates, many of which are federally protected."

  The analysis was written by Paul W. Sammarco, a professor at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) who has researched coral reef ecology for 30 years and is a member of EcoRigs; Steve Kolian, a marine researcher and founder of EcoRigs; and Scott Porter, a marine biologist at LUMCON and scuba diver who studies reef habitats around oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

  According to the analysis, "49 species of federally managed fish and 25 species of protected invertebrates utilize, to varying degrees, the platform substrate for feeding, spawning (and) mating, and grow to maturity."

  Platforms are simply being removed as stipulated in laws that have been on the books for more than 40 years, according to the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). Regulations require that oil and gas production companies remove or topple platforms no more than five years after a well ceases production or one year after a lease has ended.

  As of May, there were about 2,900 platforms on the Outer Continental Shelf, according to BSEE. Of those, 356 qualify for immediate removal and another 273 are on expired or terminated leases. Last year, 148 platforms were taken down (compared to 74 in 2008). 2009 saw a marked increase in removal, likely due to a backlog of decommissioned rigs, lax enforcement and a rash of hurricanes and tropical storms that damaged platforms, EcoRigs says.

Jumping off the boat and into the Gulf's murky waters, Hell Divers say that once they descend through the top layer of chocolate milk-colored water, the undersea world quickly opens up into a wonderland of black coral, spiny oysters, sponges, sea turtles, stone crabs, grouper, amberjacks, red snapper and an array of brightly colored tropical fish.

click to enlarge Colorful coral and other marine life thrive around drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Colorful coral and other marine life thrive around drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

  The Hell Divers choose platforms for their expeditions because of the wealth and variety of sea life that latches onto and swims among the trellises of the colossal metal towers. Some members have been diving around platforms for half a century — a culture they want to preserve for their children and grandchildren. Cozic says he has noticed a number of the locations where he once dived for fish are now gone, the reef destroyed and the marine life dead or displaced.

  "It's sad when you go out there and your favorite rig is gone," he says. Still designated on their GPS as what they knew for years as an oft-dived underwater oasis of fish and coral, Hell Divers are saddened to find an empty spot of open water. The last time he went out for a dive, Cozic noticed four or five platforms had vanished.

  There are many arguments for dismantling the platforms: public concern over the environmental consequences of oil and gas exploration, including coastal erosion, disappearing wetlands and damage to reefs on the ocean floor; fallout from the 2010 BP oil disaster in the Gulf; dangers the structures pose to marine traffic; and the money to be made in removing them.

  There also are reasons against dismantling platforms: destruction of ecosystems dependent on the structures; a decline in the biodiversity that attracts sports fishermen; and the ensuing decline in profitability for businesses focused on that industry.

  At the heart of the issue is liability. Unless platforms are outfitted with lights and horns, they are navigational hazards and the owners are liable for damages that might occur. The law currently doesn't allow oil and gas production companies to sell a platform and transfer liability to a new owner; there's a cradle-to-grave liability that makes removal attractive — unless a platform enters Louisiana's Rigs to Reefs program, which was started in 1986 as an incentive for companies to donate their platforms to the state, which then assumes liability. Platforms accepted into the program are toppled where they stand, partially removed and then toppled or moved to a designated area before being toppled.

  While it sounds good, veteran Hell Diver Terry "Papa Smurf" Migaud says it's not the win-win situation it appears to be. To comply with Coast Guard regulations, the top of the platforms must be cut off to at least 85 feet under the surface of the water to avoid being a hazard to seagoing craft. The Hell Divers and scientists at EcoRigs, however, argue that one of the most unique aspects of the vertical reef structure of a platform is that it supports a diversity of species at all levels: shallow, mid and deepwater, and those top feet support the most life.

  "You have to have the complete vertical ecosystem," Migaud says.

  "The food chain is not complete (without the top feet of the platform)," Smith adds.

  The toppled platforms also are not the same as the standing structures. Hell Divers Vincent LeBlanc and Ryan Saucier say they've tried fishing at the toppled platforms but found it wasn't worth the trip. The fish just aren't there, they say.

  A study conducted from 2003 to 2009 by the Minerals Management Service (MMS) backs up their assertion. The study compared reefs developed in four situations: a platform in place, a platform partially removed and toppled, a platform toppled in place and a natural reef. The study concluded that there were significantly more fish around the standing platform — about 12,000 compared to 2,500 at a toppled platform: "Overall, we found that fish biomass and density around the standing oil and gas platform were higher than the artificial reefs or natural reef."

click to enlarge A drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico could be home to an underwater ecosystem.
  • A drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico could be home to an underwater ecosystem.

  The MMS study also recorded a substantial loss of marine life as a result of toppling. "We estimate a loss of approximately 50-80 percent of the fish population when a standing platform is converted (toppled or partially removed) into an artificial reef site in 100 m of water," the report said.

  The EcoRigs brief concurs: "Reefing a structure is not adequate mitigation, because 90 percent of the organisms will either perish or move from the site due to a change of location in the water column."

  The BSEE revised the Rigs to Reefs guidelines in June, removing a requirement that there be a 5-mile buffer zone between designated reefing areas, eliminating storm-toppled platforms from consideration for the program and providing deadline extensions for companies pursuing the program. That's a major victory and clears the path for "reefing" to become not just an option for a production company, but a preferred option, according to Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Coastal Conservation.

  Sammarco also supports Rigs to Reefs, but characterizes it as a "really good system that needs to be tweaked," particularly when it comes to preserving the valuable upper parts of the plat-forms. One proposed solution would create a fund using money saved by not removing the platforms — one removal can cost as much as $3 million — and form an oversight foundation responsible for maintaining lights and horns on the platforms and conducting routine checks to make sure they are working.

  "I think it's quite possible to do it," Sammarco says. "I'm not saying it's simple, and all stakeholders need to be heard."

  The tourism industry also has a financial stake in the issue, and removing the platforms could have a negative impact. A study by the MMS in 2002 showed platforms generate $324 million annually and create 5,560 full-time jobs in the marine sport fishing and diving industries.

  "It's going to be economically painful regardless of the ecology," says oncologist-turned-marine biologist Will Stein of the University of New Orleans' Nekton Research Laboratory. "What we do know is that the rigs are an economic boon to the state of Louisiana. Sport fishermen spend a lot of money and support the coastal communities. When the rigs go, with it [comes] a loss of jobs, loss of revenue and loss of coastal heritage."

  Migaud says he has reached out to big environmental groups, but has gotten little support from them.

  There is willingness to compromise among some, however, especially groups conversant about the Gulf of Mexico. The New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network, for example, states that it "supports the development of a plan by stakeholder groups ... for retaining concentrated groups of rigs as artificial reefs in designated areas."

  There's also a catch-22 in federal laws that developed because lawmakers didn't foresee the symbiosis that developed between the submerged structures and the ocean's biosphere. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act prohibits removal of protected coral, hydrozoans, octocorals and gorgonians, creatures commonly found on platforms. If destruction can't be avoided, the government is required to consider alternatives, such as using the platform for renewable energy or sustainable fisheries. If there are not reasonable alternatives to removal and the destruction of a reef, the National Environmental Policy Act requires the responsible party to pay for building or restoring a habitat equal to the one destroyed.

  "The federal government is bound by law to protect coral reef organisms and reef communities," the EcoRigs brief says. If environmental regulations are enforced, it continues, "the oil and gas industry would likely have to scrape organisms off the structures before removal and spend billions of dollars to mitigate the loss of the coral reef habitat."

  "You have to choose which law to respect," Sammarco says, and "99 percent of the platform owners forget about the coral." It's not an insurmountable challenge, he says, because not every platform spawns a vibrant reef. Based on his own surveillance, Sammarco estimates that 25 percent or fewer platforms are highly productive reefs. "You'd still be taking out about 75 percent of them," he says.

  According to Decomworld.com, a website that provides information for the platform decommissioning business, the rate of removal is somewhat dependent on the mood of the industry. "The Gulf of Mexico oil and gas industry is clearly in a proactive mood for the decommissioning of shelf assets," reads a statement on the website. "Previous years have been more reactive, principally due to hurricane activity, which had caused extensive damage to platforms and associated infrastructure."

  There's big money to be made in the platform removal business. "2011 was a record year for the number of platforms decommissioned, and has exceeded all predictions," Decomworld says in its "decommissioning market opportunities" section. "2012 is already the second largest market for structure removal."

The Hell Divers, which Cozic says are focusing on changing the legislation as much as spearfishing these days, want the removals to stop until all the issues are resolved.

  "We are basically asking for a moratorium in order to do some science to determine if the structures are essential fish habitats," he says. "Once we yank them out and find out that it hurts the fisheries — we are all screwed. It will affect the recreational fishermen, the commercial fishermen, the restaurants, the Louisiana economy as a whole, and our culture. Even though the structures were not put there for that reason, it may be a benefit."

  Meanwhile, other states, countries and conservation organizations spend millions building and maintaining reefs to accomplish what platforms in the Gulf have achieved over decades: support thriving populations of fish and other sea creatures.

  The Nature Conservancy estimates 70 percent of the world's coral reef could be lost by 2050 if current rates hold. To slow that decline, the group is spearheading an effort to protect and build reefs in many areas, particularly the Coral Triangle, a band of coral in the Pacific Ocean that stretches between the southern tip of Asia and northern Australia. Efforts are underway to reduce overfishing, stem pollution and in some cases exclude humans from the areas. The Nature Conservancy estimates that reefs in this triangle house 40 percent of the fish species in the world and provide livelihoods to more than 126 million people.

  Closer to home, volunteers of the Coral Restoration Foundation in Florida, with funding from the NOAA, have grown about 30,000 staghorn and elkhorn corals in underwater nurseries over the past few years, and the program has spread to the Caribbean. All over the world, nonprofits, science-based groups and government entities are coming together with a common goal to save the earth's reefs.

  "While everyone else is losing reefs, ours are growing," Sammarco says. "Why would we want to lose that?"

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