Crisis in the Gulf

Part I of II
By: Steve McNemar
Photo credit: Michael Strohmeyer

How Long Will We Remain Silent?

The following article was written almost ten years ago.

It was published in numerous venues and read into the Congressional Record. However after all that time, while a lot of the names of participants is this struggle have changed, little else has been done to save these ecosystems from destruction.”

The sun was barely over the horizon as we eased the boat into line behind the other fishing vessels. We were targeting amberjack at the oil production platform designated as Main Pass 298.

Unfortunately there were already four boats ahead of us, in line to work the only productive corner of the rig. Unless the over-fished amberjack were particularly hungry – we knew we had a two hour wait while each of the boats tried to fill their one fish per boat limit.

While we broke out the thermoses of coffee and settled in to wait, my mind drifted back to a time just a short ten years ago.

Back then in 2003, oil platforms dotted the Gulf of Mexico as far as the eye could see. There was no waiting in line to fish for an angler had his choice of platforms to fish and back then they all held fish.

I still have a hard time accepting or maybe grasping the thirty-minute rule imposed by the Wildlife and Fisheries Department.

I know it was imposed to do away with the frequent confrontations between anglers all competing for the same fishing spot – some of which turned deadly. However it just seems like yesterday when we could fish the same rig all day if we wanted to and rarely see another angler.

Wildlife and Fisheries Officials in Baton Rouge closely monitor the allotted thirty-minute fishing time today. They watch each platform and monitor fishing times via closed circuit television. Should you still be in position thirty-one minutes later an announcement is made over loud speakers mounted on the platform – you get two warnings – five minutes each – then the Coast Guard is dispatched.

We were not successful during our thirty-minute attempt. We tried diamond jigs and dead bait as you can no longer find our old favorite live bait– the hard tails. We only managed one undersized fish.

After that it was off to drift fish the murky waters of the Louisiana Coast. The high point of the day is usually a stray Bonita or jack crevalle- species we once regarded as trash fish. Gone are snapper – both red and mangrove – together with the majority of the other bottom fish we once targeted. Even with checks and limits in place there was no way to prevent their demise from over fishing once the habitat they used for shelter and for reproduction was removed.

Yesterday we tried fishing for speckled trout at the only remaining rig in the area known as Sandy Point, which was once covered with small platforms in the twenty-foot depths. We had heard that some boats were getting their five fish boat limit fairly easily. However, after waiting in line three hours, the large offshore boats that are forced to fish wherever they can now had stirred the water up too bad and spooked the fish.

Sound like scary science fiction? No it is not. If you are a recreational angler who enjoys fishing the shallow water platforms for speckled trout and red fish or if you are a recreational angler who enjoys fishing the deeper platforms for snapper, amberjack and grouper – unless you begin to make your voice heard now you might as well start looking for a nice farm pond. If you have a two-year-old son or grandson that you look forward to rig fishing with when he turns 12 or 13 years old – you may want to start eyeing some new cane poles instead of offshore gear.

Charter boat captains, commercial fishermen, seafood dealers, tackle shops, lure manufacturers, marina owners – unless you start making your voice heard I hope you have a good 10 year exit plan or a good resume.

Why all the doom and gloom?

Currently there are approximately 4,000 oil and gas platforms near shore and offshore from Texas to Florida. The majority of which lie off the coast of Louisiana.

The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act as it currently is written requires the removal of these platforms within one year after they cease production.

What does that mean? It means that we will lose 150-200 platforms per year or half of what we fish now over the next ten years. It is also the older, more productive (from a fisherman’s perspective), more prolific ecosystems closer to shore that we will lose since the oil companies began drilling closer to shore and then began working their way into deeper waters.

We are already feeling these effects. Recently some of the best pompano producing platforms in the state were removed from the West Delta 30 blocks. I was also recently told by Captain Kevin Hunter of Southbound Charters that when he went to fish the South Pass 37 Block in the area known as East Bay that all of the platforms in the entire block were removed. These were old rigs and consistent producers of snapper, grouper and other popular fish– a tragic loss.

It may seam trivial but we are also losing navigational aides. Within the last 60 days a platform many of us used to find our way into the Baptiste Collette channel has been removed.

I also know many old timers that navigate mainly from platform locations. The same thing happens to fish. Once a spawning population starts routinely migrating toward a vertical profile during spawning seasons, the following breeding class will have to readjust if the platform is removed.

Do we just stand to lose prime fishing locations? Hardly. I believe the case can be made that we stand to lose our entire fishery or at least a major percentage of it over time.

According to Dr. Paul Sammarco, a marine scientist with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) in Cocodrie, La., who when I voiced this concern to him said, “The platforms do act as great fishing spots with their local populations serving as the resource for recreational fisherman. But they also produce fish. Many of the fish that live on those platforms spawn eggs and sperm externally, and those eggs develop as plankton in the water column, drifting to settle on other platforms and reefs. Yes, I believe that removing platforms may well affect the larval supply for other parts of the Gulf.”

He continued, “One of the most important reasons for leaving the platforms in place is the geology. For thousands of years the Northern Gulf of Mexico was nothing but sediment – a soft bottom that stretched from Texas to Florida. There was no substrate or hard surfaces exposed to sunlight. Then in the 1940’s when the oil companies started drilling they created a new environment that had not existed since the end of the last major ice age.”

platforms

When I spoke with Steve Kolian, an environmental scientist with the Louisiana Department of Environment Quality – who has spent 14 years of his own time and money trying to make people aware of this issue, he said, “Oil and gas platforms produce one of the most prolific ecosystems on the planet. 10,000 to 30,000 adult fish live around a single platform at any one time – an area half the size of a football field. Endangered species, corals, sponges, protected fish and crustaceans colonize the platforms’ submerged structure. Yet approximately 120 of these platforms were destroyed this year – killing thousands of fish, millions of invertebrates and forever removing 120 reef ecosystems from the Gulf.”

What does this mean in layman’s terms? It means that the platforms do not just attract fish – such as reef balls – instead they produce fish. Entire ecosystems live, reproduce and die on these platforms.

In fact, the Japanese government is spending billions of dollars to build offshore platforms in order to raise fish.

We on the other hand are forcing the oil companies to spend $300-$400 million dollars per year to destroy fish habitat!


Read Part II of Crisis in the Gulf.

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 steve@usimpactinc.com.

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