It was a drunken weekend in Louisiana that led me to talk crude with a man with two fish tattoos.
The man was in Santa Barbara, the talk was in his office on campus, and the crude was oil. The tattoos were of a cow rockfish and a deep-sea anglerfish and the topic of conversation was fish and their fondness for oil platforms and no-fishing zones. California’s been trying to decide whether to allow oil companies to convert their used oil platforms to artificial reefs for several years, and in the latest development, the governor vetoed a bill with the explanation that the science was still not conclusive.
They have a really famous aquarium in New Orleans, called the Aquarium of the Americas, which bills itself as definitely one of the “top-five” aquariums in America, and where they’re quite sure about the science.
The aquarium exhibits are so-so. I was still a little tired from another famous New Orleans attraction that involved rum, so I paid only minimum attention to a mediocre tropical exhibit and standard sea otter tank.
They did have a really neat piranha tank with a bunch of ugly fish swimming around looking ready to jump out and skeletonize the woman with the baby who was pointing at them and cooing. The thought had just cheered me up when I came to the Gulf of Mexico exhibit.
According to the posted signs, the Gulf has over 3,700 oil platforms. In Louisiana, oil is a near religious phenomenon. In elections, voters decide between corrupt oil businessmen and members of the Klan. To their credit, they usually choose corruption.
So they get things like the signs in the aquarium that read: “Platforms create underwater habitats for marine life – and good fishing – that are lost when platforms are recovered.”
The exhibit, called “Rigs to Riches,” is a gift of the Louisiana Gas Service Company.
In California that would be considered a conflict of interest, or at least it would raise the ire of environmentalists. The Rigs to Reef program here would allow oil companies to chop off the top of the rig and then leave it on the ocean floor as an artificial reef. This would save the oil companies a lot of money – millions – and so they’re obviously all for it.
According to the aquarium’s sign, there are over 110,000 oil and gas jobs in Louisiana, and in 1989 the state produced 153 million barrels of crude oil, which generated $275 million in state royalties and $423 million in severance taxes.
The Gulf of Mexico tank, which tries to reproduce the Gulf ecosystem, was generously sponsored by Amoco, Shell, ExxonMobil, Wheeling Machine Products, Chevron, Kerr-McGee and Tenneco.
I trust ExxonMobil. Really I do, even though everyone else says they’re assholes and when I talked to them on the phone they sounded like assholes. I trust that, if they sponsored an exhibit in an aquarium that informs countless numbers of young children about the natural world, the aquarium would tell the full truth about the real effect of the Rigs to Reef program.
Bullshit. I was offended.
I’m always offended in aquariums, usually because people are always pointing out things to their kids and then incorrectly identifying them.
As in (pointing at goldfish), “Look at the vicious, mean shark, honey!”
And then they go and buy their kids mean-looking shark balloons and cute stuffed sea otters.
Once, when I was at the aquarium with my girlfriend, a lady in the gift shop was awwing over a little stuffed sea otter. I happened to have a shark hand-puppet on at the time, so I went over to this woman – I stress that I previously did not know her – and bit down on the stuffed sea otter with my hand-shark.
My girlfriend doesn’t go to the aquarium with me anymore.
So I was all by myself in New Orleans, offended by the idea that corporate America had corrupted pure and noble science.
When I got back, I went straight to a marine biologist who studies the reefs, and asked, indignantly, about Rigs to Reef.
And it turned out that, maybe, oil platforms do help the fish. There’re two possibilities. Either hellacious numbers of fish randomly come from all over the ocean and decide to stay at the platform where they are usually protected by fishing bans, or the platforms are creating fish.
The biologist, Dr. Milton Love, works with the UCSB Marine Science Institute and the U.S. Geological Survey, studying the ecological role of natural reefs and oil platforms for fish.
Love has two tattoos of his favorite fish, including one of a rockfish.
Despite his two fish tattoos, a USGS study on the oil platforms and a book called Probably More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast, Love claims he gets ignored in the Rigs to Reef debate.
He’s not exactly ignored, since the L.A. Times seems to quote him whenever they do a story. But he claims he wasn’t called about the most recent bill on California’s Rigs to Reef program, which the governor vetoed in October. Instead, the governor called some of Love’s colleagues at the MSI, who authored another study claiming that there is no scientific evidence that the platforms help the fish.
Love thinks there’s some pretty good proof that the platforms work to enhance the fish population. He’s been studying the rigs for six years, with two colleagues in the MSI, and he’s published several USGS papers on the topic. He’s studied all but three of the reefs; the exceptions belong to ExxonMobil, which won’t allow scientists out there.
This confirms some suspicions I have about the good people at ExxonMobil.
Love’s got pictures too from the sea floor to illustrate his story about fish and reefs. He argues that the fish don’t necessarily get anything beneficial from the reef – they just like associating with it.
Fish are great associaters. The rigs attract thousands, most of which seem to be created there. It’s been suggested that the fish just come from elsewhere to live at the platform base but the numbers make this unlikely. Pick a species and there are thousands at the platform.
Take the platform out and what’s left?
Love pulls up another photo: mud. A shot of the huge parts of the Santa Barbara Channel that are just mud with random fish scattered here and there.
Not, Love says, that this is bad. It’s up to people to decide what they want: mud or fish. He won’t say which he thinks is better.
Almost the entire Gulf of Mexico is mud bottom. The rigs help more there, because there are more of them and because they create one of the few non-mud areas in the entire Gulf. Fish flock to the platforms.
In the Santa Barbara Channel, the platforms are less important. The Channel has its own reefs and the platforms account for a miniscule portion of the non-mud habitat. Remove them, and it’s no big deal.
Except to the oil companies, who would save a lot of money. And since everyone hates oil companies, it’s a big deal to environmentalists.
The fish don’t say much.