Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Rig Removal - Essential Fish Habitat

Photo: Mike Miglini
Rig Removal - Essential Fish Habitat

Artificial reefs and their link to the Gulf fisheries has been a hot topic for the past few years. Scientists debate whether artificial reefs increase fish populations by expanding habitat opportunity or simply attract fish from other, less desirable habitat. It’s been difficult to determine which viewpoint is correct because artificial reef structures only account for about 1% of all hard bottom habitat in the Gulf. In either case, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is concerned about the method and rate of oil and gas platform removal because the structures define the way people fish in some parts of the Gulf.

In recent years, the installation of new gas and oil structures has slowed. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Interior created the Idle Iron policy which requires all oil and gas structures to be removed no longer than a year after production is finished. Fishermen and conservation groups are concerned that the demolition and removal of rigs will harm our fisheries. Unfortunately, the Gulf Council has no authority to control the removal of rigs in the Gulf, which are under control of the Department of Interior. The Council has sent a series of letters asking the agencies responsible for rig removal to reconsider the use of explosives to remove rigs because explosives are known to kill fish dwelling near those structures. The Council has also asked that the rate of rig removal be  slowed or discontinued until more information is gathered regarding the effects of structure removal on the fishery.  The letters can be viewed here.

Photo: Mike Jennings
Many stakeholders have asked the Council to address the issue of rig removal by designating artificial structures Essential Fish Habitat. The map below shows the area (pink) of the Gulf that is currently considered Essential Fish Habitat. The red dots mark all known artificial reef structures in the gulf (approximately 5,127 acres). Although the artificial reefs themselves are not designated as Essential Fish Habitat, a vast majority of artificial structures (5,031 acres) fall within the area already designated as Essential Fish Habitat.  Currently, there are only 98 acres of artificial reef structure located outside the designated Essential Fish Habitat.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is developing a document that will  consider designating artificial reefs (structures intentionally placed as reefs and structures such as oil and gas platforms that are intended for other purposes but do provide fish habitat) as Essential Fish Habitat.  The designation of Essential Fish Habitat does not give the Council regulatory authority over those areas, but it does require other federal agencies (including the groups responsible for rig removal rates and methods) to consult with NOAA Fisheries on actions that will effect the Essential Fish Habitat.  The recommendations that NOAA fisheries makes to the agencies proposing action in Essential Fish Habitat are non-binding and serve an advisory role only.

While the designation of Essential Fish Habitat mandates the Council minimize the negative consequences fishing may have on the habitat. (Section 303(a)(7) of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act), it is not the Councils intent to limit fishing on artificial reefs if they are designated Essential Fish Habitat.

The Council plans to discuss an amendment that considers designating artificial reefs as Essential Fish Habitat at the next meeting, which is scheduled for June 18 – 21 in Tampa, FL.