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To Reef or Not Reef? Newly Funded Research Will Inform Decisions on the Fate of Gulf Oil Rigs

Sea Grant-supported researchers will produce data allowing decision makers to see the ecological and economic impacts of removing oil rigs or creating artificial reefs.

By: Sara Carney, Texas Sea Grant


Over the past two decades, the number of oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico has significantly declined. Today, there are fewer than half the number of operational oil rigs in the gulf than in the early 2000s. Now, researchers want to better understand how changes in the number of oil rigs in the gulf affect recreational fish populations and the economy.


The National Sea Grant College Program and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement have awarded over $795 thousand to Texas Sea Grant and a team of researchers from Texas A&M University and LGL Ecological Research Services to produce information that could lead to the development of a decision-support tool modeling the ecological and economic effects of changing the composition of oil rigs in the gulf. 


“The motivating factor behind this project is that there has been a rapid and rather drastic decline in the number of oil and gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Dr. Richard Woodward, professor at Texas A&M University and co-principal investigator on the project. 


Decommissioned rigs can either be removed or transformed into artificial reefs, which provide habitat to many marine species, including recreationally significant fish, such as red snapper, cobia, and greater amberjack. 


“While most of us might think of [removing oil rigs] as a good thing for the environment, it turns out that the oil and gas rigs are playing an interesting part in the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico,” Woodward said. “They are providing habitat for fish, particularly reef species, and they provide places where recreational fishermen can find fish.” 


The study will consider the intricate link between the structure and abundance of recreational fish populations and the economic value associated with recreational fishing in these areas. Changes to recreationally significant fish populations impact the satisfaction of anglers, and in turn, affect the number of private and for-hire fishing trips taken, which ultimately has economic effects. 


To develop the ecological component of this model, researchers will analyze historical data on the population and environmental impacts of removed rigs compared to rigs that become artificial reefs. Additionally, researchers will survey anglers, using a smartphone app that monitors the anglers’ location and identifies the species of fish caught.


“We’ll have really interesting data on recreational fishermen, where they are going and how long they are fishing, which will help us understand the importance of these rigs,” Woodward said. “If all the fishermen always go to a certain rig, that tells us a lot.” 


The study will produce data that could inform future tools to readily identify the environmental and economic impacts of removing an oil rig. This will allow decision-makers to make informed choices on whether to remove a rig or turn the rig into an artificial reef. 


According to Texas Sea Grant Director Dr. Pamela T. Plotkin, “This new research investment to measure the ecological and economic effects of existing and reefed offshore energy facilities in the Gulf of Mexico will contribute to our knowledge about the overall importance of oil rigs to the marine ecosystem and quantify the economic benefits of retaining these valuable habitats long after the rigs are decommissioned.” 


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