The fate of 13 oil platforms off California’s southern coast, including the 12 platforms located along the Santa Barbara shoreline, now rests in the hands of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

The NMFS will make a recommendation to the secretary of commerce on March 8 stating whether it thinks the platforms should be dismantled or allowed to remain standing as artificial reefs for the several species of animal life that inhabit the area. Federal law requires oil companies to dismantle platforms once they stop producing oil and gas.

Local animal rights activists, however, are worried that removal of the platform could harm the several species of marine life – including the endangered rockfish – that inhabit the submerged areas of the platforms. UCSB biology professor Milton Love, who has studied marine life under the rigs for the past 10 years, said the federal secretary of commerce would rule on the matter once it receives the NMFS recommendation.

NMFS division chief Michael Kelly said he would base his decision on data collected by Love and other UCSB researchers. While NMFS will examine the economic and environmental impact of allowing the platforms to stay, Kelly said his primary concern is whether the platforms provide a necessary habitat for marine life.

“The big issue for us is defining what habitat is best for fish populations that might be in trouble,” Kelly said. “These structures, since they were built, have developed into a community rich in life, with whole systems of existence and healthy populations of endangered fish like the rockfish.”

Kelly said the rigs might actually protect the rockfish from fishermen.

“The structures right now provide a protected habitat for many species of fish,” Kelly said. “One reason we believe it to be such a great habitat is it’s tricky for fishermen and other traditional fish-depleting concerns to get around the structures.”

Love said his role in the actual debate is limited, but he provides the data that the arguments are based on. He said he does not inject his personal biases into his findings.

“I am basically a reporter,” Love said. “I study the habitats and the fish that live there like the rockfish and I present my findings to be used or ignored by whoever is making the decision.”

Love said he personally thinks dismantling the platforms would be a mistake.

“I have an opinion as a citizen, not as a biologist,” Love said. “As a citizen I am opposed to killing a large number of any animals, and to remove these platforms would kill thousands of fish and possibly hundreds of thousands of invertebrates.”

Jennifer Gilden, marine reserves liaison for the Pacific Fishery Management Council, said NFMS also asked her organization for its input. While she thinks the platforms are an important habitat for the fish, she said she is also concerned that oil companies are taking advantage of that fact to avoid dismantling their rigs.

“I believe that the oil platforms may be included as essential fish habitats, but there are still many things to consider,” Gilden said.

Kelly said he is also concerned that the decision could allow oil companies to justify building more oil platforms.

“[The National Marine Fisheries Service] is still undecided on the issue, because this could potentially open the way for companies in the future to designate the by-products of their profit as ‘habitats’ and leave them to harm the environment,” Kelly said.