08/30/2011 01:02 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2011

Louisiana Reef Fund Plundered During Budget Balancing

With a swipe of the pen, the Louisiana legislature took $26.6 million last month from a fund that converts old oil rigs into reefs where fish congregate. That move, which was intended to cover a budget gap, will cost the state as it tries to revive the coast, critics say. Money in the Artificial Reef Development Fund, paid by oil companies that enroll defunct rigs, protects fish and pays for ecological research.

Since the new fiscal year began on July 1, the operating budget of the reef fund -- managed by the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries -- has shrunk to $6 million.

Through the ARDF, started 25years ago, LDWF has built 66 offshore reefs from 269 oil platforms and related structures. Additionally, 29 inshore reefs were created from limestone, shells, bridge rubble and other material. Supporters of artificial reefs -- including fishermen and environmentalists -- don't want the fund to be depleted.

Chris Macaluso, coastal outreach coordinator with nonprofit Louisiana Wildlife Federation in Baton Rouge, said the state has removed $45 million from the ARDF since 2009-10. "This could become a pattern, in which the fund is raided whenever there's a budget shortfall," he worries.

Referring to Bobby Jindal, Macaluso said, "It seems hypocritical for a governor, who claims to favor coastal habitat restoration, to remove money from a fund that's dedicated to just that."

As Louisiana's wetlands continue to erode, artificial reefs provide needed habitat. "They give younger fish a place to seek refuge from larger fish," Macaluso said. "No one can argue that there's better Gulf fishing than off the Louisiana coast, and that's partly because of these artificial reef structures."

"Losing ARDF money means losing money that the fund is using to build not just offshore but also inshore reefs -- like Independence Island near Grand Isle, and others that protect coastal marshes, lakes and bays," he said. "That's habitat for speckled trout, redfish and shellfish. The money's badly needed coming off of last year's oil spill and before that, four hurricanes -- all of which damaged the coastline."

He compared artificial reef development to farmers making cropland as productive as possible.
Macaluso said, "Members of the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission have formed a working group to examine the constitutionality of the legislature and the governor removing money from the ARDF." The commission may take legal action if there's substantial evidence of a constitutional violation, and attorneys who are fishermen and hunters might do the work pro bono.

The state's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Assistant Secretary Randy Pausina, based in New Orleans, said the Administration checked with the agency about its reef needs early this year. "We said we had enough for the program and agreed to release ARDF money this year for other uses by the state," Pausina said. He added, "During state budget shortfalls, we're all on the same team."

Pausina continued, saying, "We have two or three unused oil and gas jackets a month coming into the ARDF program. We're averaging 25 structures per year." It takes six months to a year before old platforms are deployed as reef.

For oil companies, the average cost of decommissioning a Gulf platform outside the ARDF program is $3.8 million, Pausina said. Companies enrolling structures in the ARDF donate half of their realized savings to the fund. LDWF pays any costs associated with maintaining artificial reefs.

New entries in the program mean a steady stream of revenue, which in recent years has been running about $9 million annually and is slated to grow as old rigs are retired at a faster pace.

Commercial and recreational fishermen support the artificial reef program. At Super Strike Charters in Venice, La., Captain Damon Mcknight said his firm takes fishing parties out to artificial reefs, where "we catch a large variety of red snapper, amber-jack, cobia, grouper, mackerel and sharks. Those structures also provide essential habitat and food for pelagic species -- such as tuna, wahoo, marlin and dolphin." Pelagic fish range from small coastal foragers to large oceanic predators and live near the surface or in the water column of the ocean, but not in the sea's bottom.

Mcknight said artificial reefs are home to many types of corals and fish, providing an entire underwater ecosystem. "Without them, the Gulf would be a different ecology," he said.

Louisiana has nine artificial reef-planning areas, mainly using decommissioned rigs. Rigs in the Gulf provide habitat and structure for invertebrates and fish, according to the LDWF. Experience has shown that artificial reefs need to be placed at least 25 meters but not more than 400 meters apart in the Louisiana Gulf to provide optimum habitat, the agency said. Permits for artificial reefs are issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Universities provide biological monitoring to the ARDF and assist with reef design. Louisiana State University is completing a three-year offshore project, studying several of the program's reefs, Pausina said.

Activities that the fund supports are referred to as the Louisiana Artificial Reef Program, or LARP. The program has contributed $1 million toward an LSU project evaluating the movement and feeding of fish in and among artificial reefs.

Dr. James Cowan, Jr., oceanography and coastal sciences professor at LSU, said, "LARP funds have an enormous impact on marine ecosystem research, including work on fish habitats and reef planning. LSU and other Louisiana universities have been involved in LARP research for years, and much of that work probably wouldn't get done if the ARDF didn't exist."

Cowan said, "Scientific research on fisheries around structures as large as oil and gas platforms is challenging and expensive, especially when ships are used, and it's also somewhat unique to only a few places in the world."

He said near-shore areas that don't have natural structures in the northern Gulf attract fish of commercial and recreational value after artificial reefs are built. Concentrations closer to shore provide fishing opportunities, and coastal communities benefit economically from fishing the rigs.

"Fish use these platforms as habitat in ways we still don't fully understand," Cowan said. "Some fish populations may increase because of platforms, but that's not clear."

While fisheries data has been gathered under the LARP for years, more is needed, Cowan said. "Some of the species using platforms in inshore and offshore waters are over-exploited or, in the worst cases -- such as bluefin tuna and white marlin -- are being considered for listing as threatened or endangered. Future research will determine which fish are made more vulnerable to fishing because of their attraction to large, unnatural structures in the marine environment."
He said, "State and federal agencies are very aware of the need for baseline data, especially after the Macondo well accident," referring to the BP spill. "It's become evident that there isn't enough pre-spill data on fish and fish habitats in many offshore environments, including Louisiana's artificial reef planning areas, for comparisons and damage assessments."

Cowan said the ARDF has been flexible in using its money to fund inshore projects, like the four-acre Independence Island artificial reef, constructed in June near Grand Isle, La.. Other recent projects -- entirely or partly funded by the ARDF -- include artificial reefs in Lake Pontchartrain and in Terrebonne Parish's Lake Pelto.

He discussed the importance of fishing to the state, and said, "Most people don't realize it, but about 75 percent of all seafood landed in the U.S. Gulf comes from Louisiana, providing jobs and revenue as well as recreation in Sportsman's Paradise. In the U.S., Louisiana is second to Alaska in seafood production."

Cowan weighed in on offshore drilling trends. "Oil fields in Louisiana state waters are expiring or drying up, and under federal law companies are required to remove unused platforms unless the state accepts them," he said. "Drilling is moving further offshore."

"Thousands of platforms in the Louisiana Gulf will be decommissioned over time, but not all of them will be accepted into the ARDF," he said. "Some of the owners are smaller companies with limited resources." Research helps companies and the reef program make informed decisions about defunct platforms.

As for the raid on artificial reef funds, Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association said, "The program is essential to our industry, and we have companies that are disappointed to see some of the money being used differently than intended. The flip side is that in a crisis, you have to take from your savings or other places to pay your bills." And, he noted, "there were no news taxes on industry."

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, or BOEMRE, all five U.S. Gulf Coast states, a number of European Union countries, and Japan and other Asian nations have rigs-to-reefs programs.

This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Aug. 22, 2011 edition.