One of the goals of the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), our primary federal fisheries law, is the identification and protection of Essential Fish Habitat (EFH). The goal is laudable enough since sufficient habitat is key to the health of all our fisheries.
What exactly is EFH? According to the MSA, it is “those waters and substrate necessary to fish for spawning, breeding, feeding, or growth to maturity.”
The act further defines “substrate” to include “structures underlying the waters, and associated biological communities.”
MSA gives to fishery management councils the responsibility of listing EFH.
Given all that, it stands to reason that the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council must have long ago declared the hundreds of older, non-producing oil-rig structures in the Gulf as EFH.
After all, one need only see these rigs to be aware of how vital they are, their metal legs and parts having long since disappeared beneath the living, building corals that now provide protection for scores of small finfish and invertebrates and offer a home and food to a constant population of larger resident and migratory predators.
I've been there/done that many, many times, always marveling at the amount of sealife on these old structures. Drop a baited hook to the depths alongside one and it's easy to understand that these are indeed also unique vertical reefs, extending up from deep waters.
Even if you’ve never been on the Gulf at all, plenty of photos reveal these coral-reef communities.
Also, these reefs occur where there isn't a whole lot of structure or relief over a generally smooth bottom. That would seem to move them from the "important" column into the "critical" column. Or, one might say, essential.
So, to repeat my comment from above: It stands to reason that the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council must have long ago declared coral-covered non-producing rigs as EFH. Right?
Astoundingly, the council has never listed these Gulf treasures as essential habitat.
Right now, that glaring deficiency could be at least part of the reason the Department of the Interior has, in some perverted logic resulting from the 2010 oil catastrophe, decided to declare that 650 or so “idle iron” structures — along with tons of living coral and all the biomass associated with that — be destroyed and removed.
But the Gulf council has the opportunity next week, at their meeting that starts on April 16, to finally right a grevious wrong, or at least a major oversight, and formally declare oil-rig structures in the Gulf as Essential Fish Habitat.
A proposal to do just that is on the docket. I can only hope that council members will vote (unanimously, one would think) to declare these structures — once lifeless metal skeletons and now thriving ecosystems — to be essential habitat.
To do so can only help protect these reefs (though an EFH designation has no binding impact on a federal agency like Interior, it would certainly send a strong message about the ecological value of these rigs).
Failing to do so would be irresponsible and truly disgraceful.
Memo to Gulf Fishery Management Council:_ Please_ don’t waste this opportunity to do the right thing for the resource you manage.