Newswise — Oil platforms along the coast of California are being taken offline. Research conducted by CSU faculty and students brings to light the value of these artificial reefs.
“If you remove these oil platforms by blowing them up, you’re going to wipe out a huge part of the population of economically important fish.” – Chris Lowe, Ph.D., CSULB
To some, the oil platforms scattered along Southern California’s coastline are simply eyesores. But beneath the water’s surface lies a vast ecosystem of marine life that not only calls the structures home but flourishes as a result of them. As the platforms reach the end of their production cycles, the state is planning for their decommissioning, which will entail full removal, partial removal or leaving them in place. Whatever the case may be, petroleum companies will foot the bill.
Research conducted by CSU faculty and students has uncovered repercussions that could arise from the destruction of the oil platforms and impact these essential underwater worlds. In doing so, students have gained invaluable experience that has helped them land in-demand jobs. “It definitely contributed to me getting hired for the full-time marine biologist position I accepted with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife after graduation because my experience lined up so well with what the job required. I stood out against applicants without any experience outside the classroom,” says California State University, Long Beach alumna Heather Gliniak.
STRUCTURES ON THE HORIZON
Twenty-seven oil platforms, all located in Southern California, span from Huntington Beach to Point Conception in Santa Barbara County. Four reside in state waters and 23 in federal waters at depths that range from 100 to 1,200 feet. Many of the platforms, which have been in place for 30 to 50 years, are currently not producing enough oil to make them worth maintaining.
ABUNDANCE OF LIFE
As nature tends to do, it adapted to the towering structures, creating habitats for a multitude of fish and invertebrates amid the metal beams. “These oil platforms are unique relative to natural reefs because they go from the bottom of the ocean to the surface,” says Jeremy T. Claisse, Ph.D., assistant professor of biological sciences at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. “There’s a lot of water flowing through, bringing plankton to feed the mussels, scallops and anemones that have encrusted the structure.”
Those invertebrates then serve as sources of food for fish, 90 percent of which are rockfish, which are economically and ecologically important to California. While other natural reefs have been fished heavily by recreational and commercial fisheries, it’s likely the platforms have provided shelter where fish have been allowed to repopulate.
TRADITIONAL DECOMMISSIONING PROCESS
Removing structures that are submerged in 1,000 feet of water is an expensive, technically challenging and risky project. Not to mention the large carbon footprint created by the whole operation and then having to figure out where to recycle the massive and odorous structures. Traditional methods of removal, like the ones used in the Gulf of Mexico, involve dropping explosive charges down the legs of the platform, causing them to rupture at about 13 feet below the surface.
“Then they use cranes to lift it up and cut it, lift it up and cut it,” explains Chris Lowe, Ph.D., professor of marine biology and director of the Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach. “The problem is billions of animals use those platforms as their home. All fish with a swim bladder that are within 500 yards of the explosion will die and all invertebrates growing on the platforms will dry up and die. I was skeptical of the data indicating the oil rigs are valuable, but having worked on them for so long, as long as the wellheads can be sufficiently capped to prevent leaking, I’m in favor of reefing.”
Dr. Claisse says that’s not even the biggest issue at hand: “It’s not so much about the fish that are currently living there, but about the habitats the platforms provide over decades so fish can reproduce. Losing the habitat is the bigger effect.”
In 2010, then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 2503, which created the option of allowing oil companies to turn oil platforms into artificial reefs.
THE PLATFORM PREFERENCE
Over the span of nine years, Dr. Lowe oversaw a number of projects (funded by $660,000 in grants and contracts) that involved a team of 10 CSULB graduate students and focused on researching whether fish prefer living at oil platforms. The findings would help determine if the platforms should be retained or removed. They assessed the habitat value at platforms in Long Beach and used acoustic telemetry to discover how long fish were staying there.
The next step was to find ways to mitigate the mortality that would occur during full decommissioning by physically moving fish to different habitats. “We caught fish on several platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel, tagged them and translocated them to a marine protected area off Anacapa Island [12 miles away] across a deep water channel,” Lowe says. “Twenty-five percent of them returned to the platform they were caught at, which really shocked us.”
“We also caught fish off the natural reef and moved them to the platform and then caught fish off the platform and moved them to the natural reef. We found that the fish caught on the natural reef stayed on the platform and the fish we took off the platform and moved to the natural reef came back to the platform.”
With direction from Lowe, CSULB alumnus Chris Martin led the study design, data collection and analysis of fish community data. “This work was published as my thesis as well as two separate peer-reviewed journal articles,” says Martin, who is now an environmental scientist at Metro Vancouver Regional District. “My CSU experience was no doubt invaluable, and I wouldn’t be in my current senior position without the skills and knowledge I gained.”
IN THE FIELD
At Cal Poly Pomona, Claisse has been studying fish behavior around oil platforms for almost a decade, expanding on datasets developed by Milt Love and Ann Scarborough Bull, researchers at UC Santa Barbara. “We focused on taking that data and converting the counts—how many fish, how big they were and which species—into a uniform metric that can be used to compare platforms to natural rocky reefs,” he explains. “That way, you can compare the amount of production between the two to get a sense of how they’re functioning as an ecosystem.” Claisse and his team found these platforms are among “the most productive habitats for fish anywhere that’s been studied in the world—about 27 times more productive than the natural rocky reefs in our region.”
CPP graduate student Chelsea Muñoz Williams says her research on the platform project helped her see the value of active science and how science informs policy. “From an environmental standpoint, one would assume complete removal of these platforms and restoration to the original natural state would be the best ecological option,” says Williams, a research associate, grants manager at Occidental College. “However, these structures act as refugia for hundreds of species of fish and invertebrates throughout the water column, none of which would exist over soft, sandy substrate.”
ADDING TO CALIFORNIA’S BLUE ECONOMY
Environmental groups are pushing for complete removal of the oil platforms, calling them unsightly and citing the possibility of oil leaks. Others claim the locations can serve multifunctional purposes, including as dive sites and anchoring points for offshore aquaculture.
“If you have this platform offshore and it already cost millions and millions of dollars to put into place, why not retrofit it for something else, like wave energy or wind energy?” Lowe poses. “One of the other options discussed is to take off the superstructure and just leave a flat platform to use as a roosting habitat for seabirds. My dream is to convert one of them into a marine lab.”
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
While the state and federal government are determining the exact process, 10 platforms are projected to be decommissioned in the Golden State by 2030. The first one will likely be Platform Holly in Santa Barbara, which the state owns as a result of the petroleum company claiming bankruptcy.
Lowe and Claisse are hopeful the deciding bodies will take their research findings into consideration. Whatever transpires, they are grateful for the rich experiences gained by CSU students. “With their participation in the oil rig projects, many of my students learned how to do science in difficult places and how to deal with policies,” Lowe says. “They got a lot more than a master’s degree.”
For more information on how the CSU is working to solve the biggest threats to California’s oceans, check out our oceans series.