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Sink It!

New artificial reefs continue to enhance marine habitat in the Gulf of Mexico.

By J. Dale Shively

Artificial reefs such as petroleum structures enhance marine habitat in the Gulf of Mexico, improving conditions for diving and fishing.

Rusty steel. This usually signals the end of life for many man-made structures, but is just the beginning for artificial reefs, structures placed by man in the aquatic environment. Artificial reefs are used to enhance fishery resources and increase fishing and diving opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Texas Artificial Reef Program recently acquired eight obsolete El Paso Production Company petroleum structures, about 90 miles offshore in several hundred feet of water. They were reefed through the Rigs-to-Reefs program. Not only was marine habitat preserved, but the reef program received more than $1.7 million out of the deal to help fund monitoring and scientific research.

Marine anglers long have recognized the benefits of artificial structures in enhancing their fishing. The first marine reefs were constructed in the United States in the mid-1800s. Reef construction gained momentum in the 1930s, and by the 1960s artificial reefs were numerous.

However, with few guidelines, people used everything from steel to automobile tires. It was not uncommon for some of these materials to move around and quickly deteriorate. By the mid-1970s, artificial reefs were recognized as tools for the enhancement of marine habitat and fisheries management. A National Artificial Reef Plan, drafted in 1984, provided guidance for artificial reef development and management by individuals and government agencies.

Artificial reef development in Texas coastal waters has been going on for more than 50 years, but it was not until the mid-1970s that stable, durable and complex artificial reefs were constructed with the sinking of 12 surplus World War II Liberty Ships. These ships were sunk at five sites in the Gulf of Mexico and represent the first successful reef development activity within Texas waters.

During the mid-1980s, hundreds of obsolete petroleum platforms were being removed from the Gulf of Mexico and taken to shore for recycling. Off the Texas Coast there is little of the natural hard substrate that is required to build reef fish communities, so scientists, anglers and divers alike recognized that unique marine ecosystems were created by the marine growth on the legs of oil platforms, much like an oasis in a desert. But the oasis was running dry.

This loss of marine habitat prompted the Texas Legislature to pass the Texas Artificial Reef Act in 1989, championed by state senators J.E. “Buster” Brown and Eddie Lucio, Jr. Through this act, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department was directed to develop the artificial reef potential off Texas. The end result was the adoption of the Texas Artificial Reef Plan in 1990 and the creation of the reef program.

The legislation also provided a means for the oil and gas industry to donate obsolete petroleum structures as artificial reefs through a new program, Rigs-to-Reefs. Before this program, a petroleum company was required by federal law to remove non-productive structures. Now, with Rigs-to-Reefs, a company can donate obsolete structures to the reef program, thereby saving them money in clean-up costs and the State of Texas precious marine habitat. The reef program receives a percentage of the cost savings for use in research and monitoring. It is a “win-win” situation for the companies and the reef program, but the biggest winner is the marine environment.

From 1990 to fall 2002, the reef program had received 67 obsolete petroleum structures and established 45 reef sites in the Gulf. With total reef funds exceeding $6 million, Texas remains a major player in the enhancement of marine habitat in the Gulf of Mexico.

Along with the recent El Paso Petroleum platform donations, Texas continues to build artificial reefs in Gulf waters. Reefs have been constructed from various materials, such as welded pipe, fabricated concrete reef balls and culverts, natural quarry rocks ranging in size up to several tons, a 55-ton U.S. Navy surplus steel buoy, several barges, one T-2 steel tanker and a 44-foot steel tugboat. The reef program is continually assessing new materials to determine their overall benefits to anglers, divers and the marine ecosystem.

For a listing of artificial reef sites off Texas or more information on artificial reefs, visit the TPWD Web site or write to Texas Artificial Reef Program, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, 4200 Smith School Road, Austin, TX 78744-3291.

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