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Thursday, March 29, 2018
The bluefin enigma
Wednesday, May 02, 2018
Where to begin

How to make a reef from a rig
Last week I wrote about oil rigs slated for destruction and the Rigs to Reefs option. It was agencies and acronyms galore, with little way around it. But how does one actually turn a rig into a reef?

The real answer is rigs become reefs all by themselves. The critters do it. When we survey a rig, this is what we find. First, oil platforms are like a living lab — testing where fish and other reef critters really want to be by depth. This is because the structure is pretty much the same from top to bottom to start with.

RIGS TO REEFS options explained. The “jacket” is the structure of the rig. The “conductors” in the middle are hollow tubes that once housed the well casing and drill string. Fish seem to love lurking in the tight spaces in between the conductors.

A rig occupies but a single small spot on the map, having shallow water, medium and deep. You can tell what level different reef critters really want to live. All else is similar — structure, location, except differences by depth.

Heading on down from the surface, the reef is covered by the stuff you find on rocky shores — mussels, green anemones, starfish, limpets, stuff like that. The fish are perches and calicos and sheephead, Spanish mackerel — that kind of thing.

A few feet down, mussels are gone. Instead there are scallops and jingles, carpets of colorful little anemones from red to orange to pink. A little deeper and darker yet, there are hordes of huge white anemones too.

Somewhere between 40 feet and 100, it all of a sudden turns to ice water, and all the critters change. In the summer there can be tens of thousands of 2-inch rockfish at the 100-foot level. Offshore platforms are an oasis of structure out in otherwise open water.

It’s the open ocean where these little guys start their spiny tomato seed lives, drifting aimlessly on the tide. If they find structure they stick and stay the rockfish way. Almost all larval reef fish never find their promised land and perish.

REDS OCCUPYING THE ground floor of platform Ellen, at the “Double Rigs.” LOVELAB FILE PHOTO BY LINDA SNOOK

As one dives deeper the fish get bigger, blue rockfish, widows, juvenile bocaccio, Johnny bass, all those rockfish that like to stay up off the bottom more. Deeper still, the fish get redder, vermilion, coppers, canaries, cows, flags, boscos, that kind of thing.

Yes, these are the fisherman names regular folks use. “Official common names” are for fisheries managers and those who only know their critters by the book.

Scientist types use Latin so there is no confusion when working between languages. And field rats, we use shorthand codes based on the Latin. So fellow fish geeks don’t give me no grief about “Johnny bass” and “boscos” and “bankies” — which turn out to be ovalis rather than rufus but sometimes either.

Out around the bottom edges there is a habitat type change — from hard and high to a low rubble pile of fallen shells, then to mud. Out on this skirt live myriads of miniature species rockfish like honey combs and pigmies and half bandeds.

The most commonly discussed decommissioning op­tions for “reefing a rig” involve reducing it to below 85 feet. If shallower, the U.S.C.G. requires marking, lights, buoys, that kind of costly thing — stuff that the wild ocean just loves to eat alive and make you come out to fix all the time.

As you can now gather, this might make a difference as to who is going to live there after decommissioning.

There’s “Topping” where the top bit is removed down to the 85-foot level, and “Toppling” where the thing is knocked on its side. Parts and pieces can be chopped off, barged off and made into reefs elsewhere too. Of course, with a big enough barge, the whole thing can be hauled off and reefed elsewhere.

platformfishfaunaPLATFORM FISH FAUNA by depth. Rockfish, bass and other fish babies come drifting by and take over the top levels. As rockfish mature, they migrate down. Warm water critters stay shallow — perch, bass, stuff like that, while ever-larger rockfish take over the lower levels. On the outskirts of town out on the shell mound live the pygmy species. LOVELAB COVER DIAGRAM FOR PLATFORM FISHES (DECOMMISSIONING WORKSHOP, 1997)

But that heap o’ shells and any sins of roustabouts and roughnecks past remain ensconced within the remaining shell matrix. Efforts to scoop up those shells can risk releasing Pandora’s evils, if any be hiding within.

In addition, such rig reefs can be “enhanced” by adding other reef materials. The two such materials with the best track record and agency approval are clean demolition concrete and quarry rock.

Plus, there are those advocating for “reef balls.” Basically, reef balls are hollow half-shells of concrete, with little windows in them.

A good fraction of these ball supporters come with an entrepreneurial spirit, wanting to offer to include the ashes of one’s beloved deceased waterman friends and family in the concrete of the reef ball as a memorial for a fee.

It’s kind of a cool forever fate if you ask me. However, most artificial reefs come together faster and more efficiently using plain rock and cement otherwise destined for the rock crusher.

Reef balls have their place in reef building though, especially if you’re trying for a complex structure with caves in shallow water.

They are a global phenomenon now and some of the best projects use left over concrete from construction projects, pored into volunteer-built molds. Every body has a great time doing something positive for the homeless reef critters we all know and love!

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Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California party boat captain, he also works as a marine research scientist with the Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He can be reached at:

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