The men gathered in a Kenner garage for their monthly meeting look more like Marines on leave than environmental activists. But when the talk turns from catching large cobia, snapper, sheepshead and spadefish to removing idle offshore oil and gas production platforms, members of the Hell Divers' Spearfishing Club become passionate — about saving the platforms and the prolific ecosystems that have developed around them.
Members of the Hell Divers, a local club that promotes sport diving and underwater spearfishing, travel around the world. Some of the best fishing anywhere, they say, is around platforms that have stood in the Gulf of Mexico for several decades. In the last few years, however, an increasing number of their favorite fishing grounds have disappeared because of what they call "outdated" legislation and bureaucracy that requires platforms no longer in use to be removed and the ocean floor returned to its pre-drilling state. When the legislation was drafted in 1970, no one foresaw that those abandoned platforms would become the backbone of not only coral reefs but an entire marine biosphere.
"I saw more tropical fish in 10 minutes at a rig (in the Gulf of Mexico) than in 10 days in Honduras," Hell Diver Stan Smith says.
Paul Cozic, president of the Metairie-based Hell Divers, says the U.S. government should issue a moratorium on removing platforms until the law catches up with science. The extraction of the decommissioned platforms, however, continues because of a complex set of circumstances including liability, financial gain, public perception and a lack of awareness.
The platforms are the very reason Louisiana is recognized as having some of the best sport fishing in the country, Cozic says. There is evidence to back up his claim. In an interview in 2012, Bob Shipp, a member of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, said that during the first 100 years that red snapper were harvested from the Gulf, all of the fish originated east of Mobile Bay, Ala. Now, 70 percent of the annual snapper harvest comes from west of Mobile Bay, closer to Louisiana.
"The only thing that changed was that they put the (oil and gas) rigs in," Cozic says. Hell Divers say they believe the snapper already are moving toward Florida as more platforms are removed, because recently they have caught more snapper in Florida than in Louisiana's offshore waters.
And the pace of removal is picking up.
"The Gulf of Mexico will lose a third of its 3,600 offshore oil and gas platforms in the next 5 years," according to an analysis published in 2011 by EcoRigs, a nonprofit organization based in Baton Rouge that seeks to change policies concerning platform removals. "They create one of the most prolific ecosystems, by area, on the planet. It is estimated that the removal of 1,250 platforms will destroy 1,875 acres of coral reef habitat and 7 billion invertebrates, many of which are federally protected."
The analysis was written by Paul W. Sammarco, a professor at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) who has researched coral reef ecology for 30 years and is a member of EcoRigs; Steve Kolian, a marine researcher and founder of EcoRigs; and Scott Porter, a marine biologist at LUMCON and scuba diver who studies reef habitats around oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.
According to the analysis, "49 species of federally managed fish and 25 species of protected invertebrates utilize, to varying degrees, the platform substrate for feeding, spawning (and) mating, and grow to maturity."
Platforms are simply being removed as stipulated in laws that have been on the books for more than 40 years, according to the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). Regulations require that oil and gas production companies remove or topple platforms no more than five years after a well ceases production or one year after a lease has ended.
As of May, there were about 2,900 platforms on the Outer Continental Shelf, according to BSEE. Of those, 356 qualify for immediate removal and another 273 are on expired or terminated leases. Last year, 148 platforms were taken down (compared to 74 in 2008). 2009 saw a marked increase in removal, likely due to a backlog of decommissioned rigs, lax enforcement and a rash of hurricanes and tropical storms that damaged platforms, EcoRigs says.
Jumping off the boat and into the Gulf's murky waters, Hell Divers say that once they descend through the top layer of chocolate milk-colored water, the undersea world quickly opens up into a wonderland of black coral, spiny oysters, sponges, sea turtles, stone crabs, grouper, amberjacks, red snapper and an array of brightly colored tropical fish.