State programs established in Texas and Louisiana under a federal initiative allow companies to convert non-producing oil and gas platforms to official artificial reefs rather than remove them. Texas has 66 artificial reef sites, 51 of them including pieces of former platforms. Louisiana has 69 offshore reef sites.
Yet only 2 percent of decommissioned platforms in less than 100 feet of water have been reefed in the Gulf, and only 38 percent of those in waters 101 to 200 feet deep. A difficult and lengthy fedral permitting process may be partly to blame. Nor is reefing a perfect solution; current rules require that structures be at least 85 feet below the surface of the sea – too deep for most reef life to survive.
Despite their abundance and the fact that platforms have been in the Gulf for decades, we don’t know much about the role these structures play in the greater ecosystem, while in place or once reefed. But a two-year study launched this summer by the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi (harteresearchinstitute.org) aims to help find out.
“The whole controversy over artificial reefs and accelerated platform removal brought home for me just how valuable these structures are, from a biological standpoint as habitat, and economically for fishing,” says HRI director Larry McKinney. “There have been some studies done, but not truly definitive ones that would allow us to evaluate the value of those thousands of platforms.”
HRI scientists plan to document fish and other marine life around 15 artificial reef sites off the Texas coast (see map). The sites vary in depth, distance from shore, complexity of materials, and number of structures. This first year, each site will be evaluated for fish species and abundance, and differences between sites due to their location and materials used. Next year, representative sites will be evaluated more closely, looking at things such as vertical and seasonal patterns of fish, and how those physical differences between representative sites affect species abundance and richness.