Panama City - In the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Department of the Interior issued the "Idle Iron" policy. It requires all oil and gas companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico to plug non-producing wells and dismantle oil and gas production platforms no longer in use. But that has those involved in the fishing industry very concerned. According to current estimates, rigs set to be destroyed this year and next, are home to about 2 million pounds of harvestable Red Snapper. These rigs have become, in essence, artificial reefs.
Teeming with life, fish, turtles and dolphins have made abandoned oil rigs their home. But a well-intentioned federal program might wipe out that habitat. The "Idle Iron" policy calls for 3,500 non-producing wells to be capped and 650 dismantled. Secretary of the Interior Salazar issued the mandate in September of 2010 citing safety and environmental concerns.
But here is the problem. When rigs are dismantled with explosives, a vibrant habitat is destroyed and thousands of fish are killed. "For there to be a total disregard to the well-being of those stationary structures, to me is irresponsible," said Congressman Steve Southerland, (R) FL, District 2. That's why Southerland wants the policy stopped. At least for now. "I would like to see a moratorium on removing these structures until there is a well thought out plan that will preserve the positive aspects of these structures. And if there are negative aspects to these structures let's address them and do something."
One of the reasons the fishing industry takes issue with "Idle Iron": NOAA doesn't count the fish that live on these artificial reefs when they determine the length of Red Snapper season and the limit. "I find it very ironic that they don't count that fish when that fish makes an artificial reef its home, but they do count it when I as a fisherman catch that fish it is counted against my bag limit," said Southerland.
For now Southerland is suggesting just the upper portions of the rigs be dismantled, leaving the underwater habitat intact. "You can remove the upper structure without removing the bottom structure and still accomplish the same thing. In order to do that you have to care about the fish."
Again it's estimated 2 million pounds of Red Snapper make their homes on these rigs. The entire annual catch limit for the recreational Red Snapper fishery is just twice that at 3.9 million pounds for 2012.