Idle oil rigs are at the center of an unusual battle over fish in the Gulf of Mexico.
In a twist on their usual positions, oil companies and the federal agencies regulating them want to remove the old rigs, while fishermen and environmental groups are fighting to keep them in place.
For the oil companies, the rigs pose safety and liability threats. Fishermen and environmentalists see them as a boon to sea life.
Hundreds of the rigs have stood in the same spot for decades, long enough for corals to anchor on them and draw schools of fish. Sea life on the rigs is so abundant that taking them out causes environmental and economic harm, say critics of the removal program.
Fishermen and environmental groups are pushing the National Marine Fisheries Service to designate oil rigs and other artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico as essential fish habitat — a label that would require oil companies to get approval from the fisheries service before removing them.
But that could be complicated.
Vast areas of the Gulf of Mexico, including seagrass beds and underwater canyons, are managed as essential fish habitat, all of them naturally occurring environments. The designation is set for individual fish species, such as red snapper or grouper, and requires proof that the species needs that habitat for survival.
If the fisheries service considers rigs and artificial reefs as important as the natural ecosystem, it will be a first.
The designation could also backfire for those who want to fish at rigs and artificial reefs, because the essential fish habitat designation sometimes carries tighter fishing restrictions.
Meanwhile, oil companies want to make sure they are not forced to maintain inactive rigs — including warning lights needed for navigation — forever.
After the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the federal government ordered that oil rigs must be plugged and taken out within five years of going idle. The move was meant to prevent oil seepage and increase navigational safety, particularly after hurricanes.
Roughly 3,000 oil rigs tap underwater reservoirs in the northern Gulf of Mexico. About 650 are slated for removal under the new policy, called Idle Iron.
Bob Shipp, a marine science professor at the University of Southern Alabama and member of the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council, said rigs are being pulled out at the rate of about two to three each week, mostly off the Texas coast.
“The irony of it is, they only have taken out the ones that have been decommissioned, and unfortunately in some cases, have been there the longest,” Shipp said. “The older ones that are slated to be removed are the ones that have the best habitat.”
A single rig can turn an otherwise barren mud-bottom environment into a completely new landscape, with coral, tiny fish and large predator fish. Grouper, snapper, barracuda and other reef fish naturally are drawn to any type of structure, whether it is a natural ledge, a sunken ship or an oil rig.
The rigs and artificial reefs alter the natural system in a way many feel benefits wildlife.
But scientists have not settled the debate over whether the rigs simply shift fish away from more natural areas, making it easier for people to see and catch them.
“They seem to catch lots of fish on the platforms. They put one and one together and said, ‘Well don’t take them out because they’re important to the fishery,'” said Steve Bortone, executive director for the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council, an advisory board to the fisheries service. “The question wasn’t answered if, overall, you were harming the population.”
Shipp said the rigs do alter the environment. But taking them out now would hurt the fish and corals that live there, and the economies built around fishing the rigs.
“It’s extremely important fish habitat that needs to be maintained,” Shipp said.
Historically, few red snapper lived in the northern Gulf. After oil companies put rigs there in the 1940s, the underwater nature changed. Now, more than half the red snapper taken from the Gulf comes from that altered habitat, Shipp said.
“It’s been a major ecosystem transformation,” he said. “We totally transformed from mud bottom to hard bottom. In the opinion of most people, that’s a positive.”
The essential fish habitat designation could help fishing regulators learn more about artificial reefs, Bortone said.
If the designation allows fisheries managers to limit fishing on some reefs and rigs for preservation, researchers may be able to finally answer questions about whether artificial reefs and oil rigs set up new fish communities or simply draw fish away from where they would reside naturally.
Although essential fish habitat is not off-limits to fishing, it is scrutinized more. Some habitats can become restricted if regulators feel that any activity there, including fishing, harms the habitat.
For example, if a rig is designated essential habitat for coral and an endangered coral grows there, federal regulators may prohibit fishing there, Bortone said.
So far, the management council has only looked at the issue from the fishermen’s perspective. The council is seeking reaction from the general public and oil companies. A deadline for public comment has not been set.
The advisory panel’s recommendation to the fisheries management council could come as early as February.
The oil industry is not enthusiastic, mainly because companies do not want to have to maintain the rigs and make sure lights work on them continuously. Maintaining the lights takes hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, especially during hurricane season.
There is already a program in place, called Rigs to Reefs, in which decommissioned rigs are cleaned and buried either on-site or in shallower water.
“We think the program we have in place today is a very sufficient program,” said Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association.