Little has been reported lately about a continuing program in the US Gulf of Mexico that promotes the healthy development of reef environments through the use of decommissioned platforms.
Launched in 1986 with the passage of the National Fishing Enhancement Act, the "rigs-to-reefs" program is designed to convert retired oil production platforms into synthetic reefs rather than removing the out-of-service structures from the water. Before the passage of NFEA, federal regulations had required the platform's removal within 1 year of termination of the lease.
To support the program, oil companies make donations equaling roughly half the cost that would have been spent to remove the platforms. In exchange, the hard steel surfaces left behind provide just the catalyst needed to spawn a productive marine habitat, ideal for supporting a vast variety of sea life.
So, just what is biting around the 5,000 or so platforms now installed in the gulf? As part of a survey begun this summer under the auspices of the US Minerals Management Service, researchers at Texas A&M University at Galveston are posing such a question to recreational fishers and divers.
According to Texas A&M marine biology professor Jay Rooker, the survey's main goal is to determine what type of fish are being caught around the existing platforms that serve as artificial reefs-namely, where are the "downright fishing-hole hot spots?"
With the results of the survey in hand by first quarter 2000, researchers hope to have answers to other questions as well, such as: What impact do the platforms have on the environment? And, when an oil platform is no longer producing, does it still provide any value? "The answer, we believe, is a definite 'yes,'" Rooker said.
The survey delves deeper than species differentiation, however. The survey also includes questions about how much the sports enthusiasts intend to pay out for their activities and how far they've traveled to get to the right spot.
Rooker explained, "A study a few years ago showed just one fish-the red drum-had a total economic impact to Texas of over $100 million. That's how much money Texans spent on gas, lodging, equipment, boatsellipsejust to catch a red drum."
The survey results will also be added to the databanks of several coastal states' rigs-to-reefs programs, says Rooker.
Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries currently has 85 structures incorporated into the Louisiana Artificial Reef program at 24 sites, says Rick Kasprzak, biologist supervisor and leader of the program. The program's council has established 9 planning areas in 85-100 ft of water off Louisiana where no interference with any other gulf activity can occur, says Kasprzak.
Louisiana and Texas are among the gulf states that sponsor such programs. Texas boasts 24 such sites, located 6-87 miles off the coast in 36-288 ft of water. Louisiana has more platforms in place, explains Kasprzak, but they are farther from shore, due to Louisiana's narrow shelf. Louisiana's reef program obtains about 10 platforms/year, says Kasprzak.