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Reef madness 

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

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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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