A male sheepshead (center) swims among kelp bass under Platform Gina off of Port Hueneme. | Credit: Ed Romero

The decommissioning of Platform Holly, one of the seven oil platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel, is accompanied by concern for the future of Santa Barbara’s fishing industry. Platform Holly looms at 400 feet tall from where it anchors to its peak, with more than 30 wells reaching down into the Miocene Epoch. The enormous structure was once a hindrance to local fishermen, but since its completion in 1966, the rig has become a de facto marine reserve.

Erin Meyer-Gutbrod from the Marine Science Institute at UC Santa Barbara and her colleagues outlined the implications of decommissioning California oil platforms, including Platform Holly, on fisheries in a recent study funded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Meyer-Gutbrod found that removing the structure entirely could decrease on-site fish biomass by an average of 95 percent. However, by removing only the top of the rig, the reduction of fish dropped to 10 percent.

California oil platforms host a plethora of marine species that have settled on the structure. Meyer-Gutbrod explained: “The upper portions of the California platforms are covered with mussels and anemones, and the entire platform and the area around the base attract rocky reef fish species, especially rockfish. After a while, many of the mussels that attached to the shallow portions of the structure fall off and form a mound of shells below the platform, which creates still more habitat for rocky reef fish species.”

Were the platform removed entirely, the seafloor would need to be restored to its soft-bottom state. Consequently, this process would disrupt marine life among other possible dangers. According to the study, soft-bottom ocean habitats have a different species population to the de facto habitats of oil platforms.

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Meyer-Gutbrod commented on the diversity of marine life in and around oil platforms, stating, “There isn’t much overlap in the fish species that are found on the muddy soft bottom habitats compared to the hard substrate artificial reef habitats. There are rockfish species that live on the soft bottom, but they are different rockfish species from those that are prevalent on rocky reefs and, therefore, platforms. Also worth noting, the density of fish on the soft bottom is much lower than the density found on the hard substrate habitats associated with the platform.”

The higher density of marine life surrounding the platforms is beneficial to water quality and the fishing industry, which once viewed the platforms as a nuisance. Kimberly Selkoe, the executive director of Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara, addressed these benefits, stating, “They have been there for many, many decades now, and fishermen have learned to fish around them. It’s become clear that the platforms are incredible habitats for a lot of different species. Some more notable ones would be rockfish, which are important fishery species, and also filter feeders like muscles and scallops, which are important because they have an incredible ability to clean the water. And we have a lot of pollution going into our water. I’m guessing that they actually contribute significantly to the cleaning of our waters when you consider all of the oil rigs together.”

The process of removing the oil rigs also conflicts with fishermen’s operations. “The fishermen have had to put up with a lot of nuisance and hazard,” Selkoe said. “In other places where they have tried to remove wells, they have left debris on the seafloor that has snagged fishing nets so they lose their gear. And they have the potential to sink their boats if a boat is snagged too hard while in the middle of motoring quickly. So it is also a health and safety hazard because a lot of those rigs are highly contaminated. And there is no known way to decontaminate them and know that they are decontaminated.”

Meyer-Gutbrod believes there are multiple options used in the Gulf of Mexico to consider: “You can leave the whole rig in place; remove the top portion so that it is no longer a navigational hazard, usually this is done at the 26-meter mark due to Coast Guard regulations; topple the rig so that it is knocked over onto its side; or drag the reef to a new location and topple it there. In addition to these choices, the remaining artificial reef can also be augmented to attract more fish.”

In Selkoe’s opinion, leaving the platforms undisturbed is a rational choice. “One of the safest things to do is to just not disturb it,” she said. “I think given the weight of all those factors, most of the fishermen really feel that the least harm to be done is keeping the platforms there.” The downsides to removing them, she said, included “increased carbon emissions and potential for contamination in the water column and debris to be left behind that is hard to fish around and the removal of all of that habitat.”

Although Meyer-Gutbrod’s outlined methods provide insight into possible solutions to decrease the impact on marine life post-decommissioning, Selkoe expressed the community’s desire to look into alternative ideas regarding the use of the platforms, should they remain undisturbed in the water. Selkoe outlined these possibilities, stating, “There are some folks in our community who see the rig structures as anchor points for new economic activity. It could be anchoring agriculture facilities, especially for mussels and oyster agriculture and abalone. Sea urchin ranching is another up-and-coming industry that potentially could be really beneficial to add to our port’s activities.”

Both Selkoe and Meyer-Gutbrod saw the importance of investigating the unique circumstances of every decommissioned oil platform to assess the best route of action. The future of the decommissioned oil rigs remains a priority for the environmental and fishing community in Santa Barbara.

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