Offshore oil rigs are turning into fish condos

Oct 16, 2014 12:00 AM

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico made us all a lot more wary of the environmental impacts of offshore oil exploration. But a recently published study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences points to one benefit of drilling: Fish, it turns out, are turning the underwater portions of the rigs into the equivalent of apartment towers.

The study, by post-doctoral biology researcherJeremy Claisse of Occidental College and colleagues, surveyed 16 rigs annually over a 15-year period, and found that they hosted 10 times the amount of fish as other natural marine environments around the world, such as reefs and estuaries. The California rigs even had seven times the aquatic population of the rich ecosystems around reefs in the south Pacific.

The main reason, apparently, is the rig superstructures stretch all the way from the surface to the sea floor, provide a huge area that becomes the undersea equivalent of a tall building. The platform structures support a diverse community of invertebrates that, along with floating resources such as plankton, provide the base of the food web supporting fish associated with the platform,” Claisse told New Scientist.

Claisse’s team counted the number of fish and recorded their size, and then used that to calculate the weight of fish that were supported by each square meter of sea floor in the area of the rig. They compared the data from the rigs to similar surveys of seven rocky reefs, and to studies on fish abundance in other natural habitats.

But even the natural habitat with the greatest fish density — a coral reef in French Polynesia — was nowhere near as populated as the oil rigs.

Claisse told New Scientist that the study shows that man-made structures actually can enhance natural habitats. But it’s not necessary for them to be oil rigs. In the future, he suggested, it might be a good idea to figure out what features help fish to flourish, and then build them into renewable energy installations such as wind and wave energy stations.

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