By Steve McNemar
Do you hear the sound? Listen closely! Hear the sound of the world’s environmental and angling communities screaming at the top of their lungs over the destruction of some of the most prolific marine ecosystems on the planet? No? Neither do I. Quite frankly, after almost a decade since I first wrote about this matter, I have almost grown weary of wondering, “Why don’t they care?”
Next year approximately 359 oil and gas platforms are scheduled to be removed from the Gulf of Mexico (GOM). We will lose approximately 550 acres of the most prolific reef habitat on the planet.
Over the next five years nearly one-third of the GOM’s 3,600 platforms will be removed. The destruction of these 1,250 platforms will result in the loss of 1,800 acres of fish producing coral reef habitats unlike any ecosystems anywhere else on Earth.
Since I began writing about this tragedy in 2003, approximately 1,500 of these diverse ecosystems have been blown out of the water. Therefore killing or displacing 10,000 to 30,000 fish per platform and killing billions of invertebrates—corals and sponges. If one coral reef, much less 1,500 of them, had been dynamited anywhere else in the world on any structure other than an oil platform, there would have been a public outcry unlike any the world has ever heard.
Why does this happen? Federal law mandates that oil and gas platforms that have not produced oil or gas for a year must be removed from the Gulf of Mexico. This regulation was drafted back in the 1970s when no one knew what productive ecosystems these platforms would create. Latter efforts to reverse this law have gone nowhere—or at least in my opinion— largely around in circles so complex that a guy of average intellect such as I can get lost just trying to follow the reasoning.
Basically it comes down to money. Doesn’t it always? The oil and gas companies do not wish to remain liable for platforms that remain in place as vertical reefs if no release of liability is given to them. Seems reasonable. So why not give them releases if they cap the wells? How much does our country spend on other environmental endeavors? Surely the cost of maintaining the platforms’ structures and installing navigational lights and buoys are easily balanced by the cost of the great environmental losses associated with their destruction? There is also the opportunity to sell these platforms to other entities for alternative uses.
Liability could be assumed by these new owners who can use the retired platforms to provide artificial vertical reefs. Toppling a platform does no good, as the invertebrates inhabit the upper 90 feet of the water column, which is also the most productive water for fish. Alternative uses for these retired platforms can include sustainable fisheries, production of renewable energy from wind, current, wave, geo-thermal, salinity gradients and bio-fuels, recreational fishing and diving parks, fish sanctuaries, culture of pharmaceutically valuable organisms and sequestration of green house gases. Yet BOEMRE will not consider alternative uses. Go figure.
The largest insult to the environmental community and to the anglers and divers who spend 324 million dollars annually enjoying these reefs is that the Federal Government is violating its own policies as they concern protected and endangered species. According to Steve Kolian, a coastal and environmental scientist, who has been at the forefront of the effort to stop the assault upon these dynamic reefs, “It is estimated that 49 species of Federally managed fish and 25 species of protected invertebrates utilize to varying degrees the platform substrate for feeding, spawning, mating and growing to maturity. The Federal Government is bound by law (Magnuson Act) to protect coral reef organisms and reef communities. The removal of platforms destroy endangered species habitat and potentially harm and harass endangered organisms violating the Endangered Species Act.”
NOAA has recently begun to consider whether or not oil and gas platforms should be considered Essential Fish Habitat (EFH). That’s true. You can’t make up stuff like this. Almost the entire Gulf of Mexico is considered EFH except for—you guessed it. By the time NOAA gets around to declaring these prolific ecosystems EFH, if ever, the only way anglers or divers may be able to enjoy the remaining ones will be by lottery. Perhaps a concerted effort and the long awaited public outcry will finally move policy in the right direction before it is too late. What a tragedy the continued loss of these amazingly productive ecosystems would be.
For more information on this topic please visit: WWW.ECORIGS.ORG
Steve McNemar has been fishing the waters of South Louisiana for almost 50 years. An award winning outdoor writer and radio broadcaster, he is a member of the Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association, a nationally published outdoor writer and photographer and Co-Host of the radio show Hunt, Fish Talk, he is also the CEO of U.S. Impact, Inc located in Mandeville, La. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org