Research Finds More than 50 Fish Species in Gulf Rely on Decommissioned Rigs
Early research from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s artificial reefs monitoring program shows that decommissioned oil and gas structures converted to artificial reefs are supporting a high abundance and diverse fish assemblages within the Gulf of Mexico.
The new data from the western Gulf shows a high abundance of red snapper living around these structures for years at a time. Researchers in the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies (HRI) at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi say 52 fish species from 18 families have been identified at 13 surveyed sites near Port O’Connor, Port Aransas, and Port Mansfield, Texas (http://tamucc.edu/news/2013/10/images/artreef_allsitemap.jpg).
“There’s a lot of evidence that the red snapper populations we see today wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have all of these converted oil and gas platforms,” said Dr. Greg Stunz, Director of the Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation. “Red snapper is the most economically important fish in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Photo: Schools of gray and red snapper congregate around the deck of a toppled oil and gas platform. This is a structure located 70 miles southeast of Port Aransas. (Credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute).
Stunz, who is the Principal Investigator for a recently awarded grant, says that in addition to supporting a variety of fish populations, artificial reefs lure commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, and divers; benefiting many Gulf Coast economies.
This new evidence is the reason the HRI’s newly-formed Center for Sportish Science and Conservation was recently awarded $600,000 by Texas Parks and Wildlife and $50,000 from the Fondren Foundation to expand their studies on artificial reefs. Researchers will monitor sites around the western Gulf and log the amount and types of marine life that create homes around the reefs. They will use these data to determine how to sustain these new “fish homes” including finding what characteristics are best suited to become habitats for each type of fish and to find the long-term effects of keeping rigs in the Gulf after they stop functioning.
“There are about 4,000 of these rigs in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Stunz. “About 75 percent of those will be gone in the next 20 years, so we are very concerned that we get these rigs into reef programs so that they continue producing fish.”
Data collected as part of the HRI’s “South Texas Artificial Reef Monitoring - Fish Community Assessment along the Coastal Bend” grant over the next four years will help maximize the benefits from artificial reef structures and assist scientists in better understanding how to continue sustaining fisheries for generations to come.
“Up until now, there has been very little evidence for what’s happening on artificial reefs on this side of the Gulf,” said Dr. Matt Ajemian, Assistant Research Scientist and Co-Principal Investigator. “One of our major upcoming projects will be to set up an array of acoustic receivers at different artificial reefs and track fish movements among them to determine the types of reefs these animals prefer to live on.”
The “South Texas Artificial Reef Monitoring” program works to enhance the effectiveness of current conservation and management initiatives in Texas, which has one of the largest rigs-to-reef programs, and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. The project is also set to serve as an educational tool, providing research experience for students at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
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