Sustainable Fishing:

Ornamental fish is a generic term to describe aquatic organisms sold in the aquarium trade, including fishes, invertebrates such as sponge, crustaceans (e.g., crabs, hermit crabs, shrimps), mollusks (e.g., snails, clams, scallops), and also live rock. Thousands of ornamental fish and millions of invertebrates inhabit the underwater substrate beneath offshore oil and gas platforms. (see Video) These fish can be harvested in a sustainable manner and sold to the U.S. wholesale aquarium market, which generates from $120 to $200 million annually (Wabnitz, et al. 2003).

The invertebrate, algal, and bacterial communities inhabiting the 4,000 oil and gas platforms currently in place are far more diverse than the fish community that resides there. They are known to possess bioactive compounds that can make a significant contribution to the health and nutrition industries (Pomponi 1999, Rouse 2009). (See Report ). The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy (2004) stated that the successful development of these organisms for bio-medical purposes could result in a multi-billion dollar industry.

There is an estimated 4,465 acres of coral reef habitat currently existing in the Gulf of Mexico in the form of oil and gas platforms. The total volume of the underwater portion of the existing platforms is 127,712,369m3. Today’s cost to replace an equivalent number of artificial reefs at $140/m3 is $17.9 billion (Kolian and Sammarco 2008).

Offshore platforms can be used for alternate uses such as renewable energy derived from wind, current, wave, geo-thermal and bio-fuels and greenhouse gas sequestration. Sustainable fisheries operations are compatible with other platform alternate uses (Kolian and Sammarco 2005).

The species of fish living beneath the platforms are highly desirable in the ornamental fish trade and represent 84 percent of all marine ornamental fish sold in the U.S (Wabnitz, et al. 2003). Commercial fishermen can harvest ornamental fish and invertebrates that grow on the substrate. The ornamental fisheries do not compete with any other fishery in the region. Presently, there are no commercial fishermen harvesting marine ornamental fish or platform invertebrates in Louisiana or Texas.

Recreational Fishing

Because of the abundance of fish life around offshore platforms, they are a favored destination of Louisiana sport fishermen. Approximately 70 percent of the offshore fishing trips in Louisiana target the structures in the pursuit of sport fish (Stanley and Wilson 1989). Recreational fishing data (Hiett and Milon 2002) states that the Gulf platforms generate $324 million every year in economic impact and create 5,560 full time jobs in the offshore sport fishing and dive industry. (See MMS Report)

EcoRigs will encourage the use of the platforms by recreational users and recruit commercial fisherman into the underutilized fishery. The Proposed Action will not require exclusive rights to the water column. Recreational fishermen do not pursue ornamental fish.

The harvest of resident ornamental reef fish, such as those desirable in the aquarium trade, do not require the use of nets or traps because site-fidelity behavior prevents them from moving into a pelagic environment. Such movement will increase mortality risks due to predation. These ornamental reef fish live and reproduce on and around the platform substructures, while receiving all of their biological needs from the local platform environment (Kolian and Sammarco 2005).Video

There is little doubt that ornamental fish are the highest valued product that can be harvested from a coral reef. In the year 2000, 1 kg of aquarium fish was valued at almost $500, whereas 1 kg of reef fish harvested for food was worth only $6 (Wabnitz et al. 2003). Please note that ornamental fish would not exist if it were not for the presence of the platforms. There are no natural reef habitats near the platforms so when the platforms are removed (explosives), all the ornamental fish die. Most of the remaining 4,000 platforms are scheduled for removal in the next 10-15 years and this will be catastrophic to the billions of reef organisms that exist on these structures.

Commercial fisherman could also harvest naturally occurring invertebrates on the structure. Many reef organisms possess natural chemical compounds that are unique to a specific species (Faulkner 2000, Rouse 2009). These are called complementary or secondary compounds and it is from these types of compounds that many valuable pharmaceuticals are derived (Shu 1998; Duckworth 2001; Dey et al. 2002; Haefner 2003).

Simple and abundant marine algae and bacteria, let alone a host of other organisms that occur on the platforms, represent potential sources of pharmaceutical agents, agricultural chemicals, food, industrial chemical feedstocks, and other useful products (Rouse 2009, Pomponi 1999, U.S. Ocean Commission 2004).

These invertebrates are also valuable aquarium products. One platform produces approximately one acre of marine surface area which is colonized by a thick mat of invertebrates and millions of motile invertebrates such as crabs, amphipods, sea spiders and polychaetes (Carney 2005). The naturally occurring invertebrates will be harvested in a sustainable manner by SCUBA divers who will cut and scrape pieces of the invertebrate colonies from the pilings and cross members. The fishermen will not harvest federally protected coral. The pieces will be collected and placed in bags and moved to the surface where they will be held in seawater tanks on the EcoRigs vessel and transported to an inshore facility holding tank.

If it is determined that local population levels of ornamental reef fish are not economically viable, EcoRigs will install low-cost, low-maintenance nursery habitats which will help the populations to increase naturally. The modules will increase the area of appropriate surfaces for nesting, egg-laying fish and increase the recruitment of larval fish drifting in the ocean currents.

We will not be adding fish feed into the system. Ornamental fish are opportunistic feeders and graze on drifting plankton or on organisms that colonize the platform substrate. Fish will be captured by scuba divers with handheld water suction devices and moved to the surface where they will be kept alive in tanks on the EcoRigs vessel and subsequently transported to shore.

EcoRigs will not introduce hatchery raised fish which could create adverse genetic impacts upon the resident populations. This practice will assure genetic integrity in the indigenous population and by leaving the platform in place, the coral reef ecosystem will be preserved and assure the genetic integrity of the resident population and increase the diversity in the region.

The aquatic environments beneath the platforms are picturesque diving spots and popular destinations for underwater photographers and videographers. The Proposed Action will implement a program to encourage the recreational fishermen to fish and dive at the platforms and to participate in preserving these artificial reef habitats and promote sustainable fishing practices.

Two independent socio-economic studies on the impact of artificial reefs in Florida and a third in Mississippi indicate the substantial economic impact that artificial reef programs can have on coastal communities.

Area Annual Economic Impact Job Creation Source
Southeast Florida $2.4 billion 26,800 Johns et al., 2001
Northwest Florida $415 million 8,100 Bell et al., 1998
Mississippi $78 million No data Southwick 1998
Offshore platforms $324 million 5,560 MMS 2006

Purpose and Need

The need for saving retired platforms for sustainable fisheries is significant. The vast majority (95%) of marine fishes used for aquariums are wild caught fish from Southeast Asia. Foreign trade of marine tropical fishes and invertebrates for the ornamental fish industry has caused extensive damage to coral reef environments throughout Southeast Asia. Especially destructive is cyanide fishing, an illegal but extensively used fish collecting method in this region (Mackey and Chau 2001). Worldwide, coral reefs are suffering high levels of mortality due to over-fishing, nutrient enrichment, sediment runoff from deforestation and agriculture, lower pH and increased sea surface temperatures, which can induce mass coral bleaching, chemical pollution, physical disturbance, and disease — both bacterial and fungal (Kolian and Sammarco 2005).

Some of the organisms that produce bioactive compounds, such as certain sponges, occur in deep water, are unreachable by SCUBA and occur only rarely in their natural environment (Duckworth 2001). They require highly expensive equipment — such as manned submersibles associated with large tender ships. (See video of deep water submersible collecting invertebrates on offshore platform at 1,200 feet depths)

Some of the valuable compounds isolated from these species, has been shown to be highly effective in the treatment of certain types of cancer, occur in very low concentrations within their tissues. In addition, the bio-active molecules are so large and complex that it will be prohibitively expensive to synthesize and manufacture them, or even make functional derivatives in the laboratory (closely related compounds that function in the same way as the original, natural compound, but are patentable). Because of this, even the testing of these compounds for bioactivity and potential biomedical use requires quantities of these organisms which are extremely difficult and expensive to obtain (Duckworth 2001). Nonetheless, they are required in order to extract appropriate amounts and this is causing a marked decline in some source populations.

Offshore platforms are unique structures upon which to easily culture the aforementioned deepwater sponges, and could obviate the need for expensive deepwater harvesting elsewhere. Sponges in general are quite easy to grow in their natural environment and could easily be cultured at the required depths on these platforms. All of these activities will produce revenue in addition to that derived from ornamental fish harvest. In addition, the activities may be conducted in parallel without jeopardizing other sustainable fishing activities on the same platform.

The U.S. pharmaceutical industry needs a supply of marine invertebrates, i.e. sponges, mollusks, algae and bacteria (Pomponi 1999). Simple and abundant marine algae, let alone a host of other organisms which occur on the platforms, represent potential sources of pharmaceutical agents, agricultural chemicals, food, industrial chemical feed-stocks, and other useful products (Bruckner 2002, NRC 1999 & 2002).

Culture of these organisms will provide a domestic supply for aquarium enthusiasts, obviating the need for importation of Indo-Pacific marine invertebrates. This will serve an additional function in that there is growing concern about the accidental or purposeful release of these Indo-Pacific ornamental species into U.S. coastal waters (Gulko 2001; Semmens et al. 2004), with the possible impact of introducing yet more harmful species introductions (Minchin 1999; Englund and Baumgartner 2000; Shiganova 2002).

The harvest of local organisms will also initiate a new industry for the northern Gulf of Mexico, creating a new source of employment and revenue in the region and the nation (Kolian and Sammarco 2008). The demand for the organisms already exists. At this point, however, most of the supply is coming from overseas and EcoRigs believes that 80 percent of the supply can be produced in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico oil field platform environments (Chapman et al. 1997, Spalding et al. 2001, and Wabnitz et al, 2003).

The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy (2004) noted that the U.S. is the world’s largest importer of ornamental coral reef resources and suggests that we have a responsibility to eliminate destructive harvesting practices of fish and other reef organisms that are imported into the USA. These “resources are collected by methods that destroy reefs and overexploit ornamental species. To date, fewer than 10 percent of marine species are capable of being captive bred. Even fewer coral species are cultured in commercial quantities.”

The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy reported that the marine natural products industry could produce a multi-billion dollar annual market. Pharmaceutical medicines to battle Cancer, Tuberculosis, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, HIV and Malaria have been produced from some marine invertebrates. Many of these invertebrates are also valuable as nutritional products.

Rationale for Retaining Retired Platforms for Sustainable Fisheries

The Gulf of Mexico is home to 3,959 offshore oil and gas platforms (see Map). When production from the wells becomes unprofitable, federal regulations (30 CFR 250.112) require that the platforms be removed. Thousands of structures have already been removed (see Map) and most of the remaining platforms are scheduled for removal by 2020. EcoRigs will target the structure scheduled for removal. The idea is to save some of them for sustainable fisheries. See map of idle platforms scheduled to be removed (see Map).

The ornamental fish will perish when the platforms are removed. In 2008, 75 percent of the structures removed in the Gulf of Mexico utilized explosives resulting in 525 individual charges detonations (Poe and Broussard 2009).

Since offshore platforms function as artificial reefs producing a wide variety of marine life, one obvious consequence of explosive structure removal is a negative impact on fish. Estimated mortality of fish at a given platform within study depths from 40 - 100 feet ranged from approximately 2,000 - 5,000 for fish measuring greater than four inches (Gitshlag 2001). The most severely impacted fish species at explosive structure removals in order of abundance were Atlantic spadefish (Chaetodipterus faber), blue runner (Caranx crysos), red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus), and sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus). These four species accounted for 86% of estimated mortality. Gitshlag (2003) estimated the mortality of red snapper due to under-water explosives averaged 515 per platform.

Whether a platform is removed by mechanical or explosive methods, millions of invertebrates perish when a structure is removed. Invertebrates such as colonies of coral, octocoral, mollusks, red and green algae macroalgae, hydroids, colonial anemones, sponge and bryozoans. Both large and small cryptic consumers such as amphipods, pycnogonids, ophiuroids, and polychaetes are found on platforms (Carney 2005) in significant densities ranging from 100,464 per square meter near the surface to 23,541 per square meter near the bottom (Gallaway and Lebel 1981; Gallaway et al. 1981b, Gallaway et al. 1982, ).

In conclusion, sustainable fishing of ornamental fish would not compete with commercial or recreational fishermen. Coral reefs are suffering high levels of mortality due to over-fishing, under-grazing, nutrient enrichment, sediment runoff from deforestation, increased sea surface temperatures, which induce mass coral bleaching, chemical pollution, physical disturbance, and disease and saving the platforms would alleviate fishing pressure, often destructive, on natural reefs and provide a source of marine organisms to the medical industry. The marine organisms on the platforms will die if the structures are not used for alternate uses. We will lose 4,400 acres of coral reef habitat. The Texas-Louisiana fishermen are uniquely positioned to develop a sustainable offshore fishery. We bring these matters to your attention for the purpose informing you about some of the benefits of retaining offshore platforms. It would be greatly appreciated if you would consider these matters and contact staff at your congressional representative offices and federal agencies. A few contact numbers are provided below.

Walter Cruikshank, Deputy Director of MMS: 202-208-3500 or
Senator Mary Landrieu: 202-224-5824
Representative Charlie Melancon: 202- 225-4031
Governor Bobby Jindal:


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