When Southern California beachgoers gaze seaward, they see rippling waves, birds, surfers, boats, islands—and oil platforms.
To energy companies, the platforms are valuable sources of petroleum, and to many community members, they’re unsightly spill dangers.
But CSULB professor of marine biology Chris Lowe sees something else. The rigs are thriving, desirable neighborhoods that provide housing, food and mates for numerous marine animals.
Lowe, along with five of his students plus researchers at other institutions, has examined the platforms’ influence on ecosystems in the Santa Barbara Channel and between Long Beach/Huntington Beach and Catalina Island for more than eight years.
Their findings helped California state resources agencies and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez develop and enact the California Marine Resources Legacy Act in 2010, enabling oil platform operators to apply to turn defunct rigs into artificial marine reefs as long as the firms meet certain criteria. Approved rigs would have their wells capped and then be cut down to 85 feet below the water surface to avoid being a shipping hazard.
Lowe said previous regulations required oil companies to remove all traces of decommissioned platforms down to the seafloor—a process that typically includes putting explosives in the platform legs, creating a blast that can kill or injure marine animals up to a mile away.
His lab’s work revealed a great deal about life around the platforms. “Invertebrates that grow on them provide a basis of a food web for fish that associate with them, and quite often, these platforms are out on a sandy seafloor so there’s no rock habitat around, so it’s the only good structure available out there,” he said.
Security regulations prohibit boats from approaching platforms for fishing, plus it’s hard to fish near rigs because of currents and structural components. “Many people have argued over time that these platforms basically are acting like de facto reserves in that they’re providing fish enough protection that their populations have grown there and that they may actually supply areas that are being fished regularly,” Lowe said.
“We’ve used some of the novel telemetry techniques that my lab has helped develop to tag and monitor whether fish stay at platforms,” he explained. “Our basic conclusion was that most fish use platforms for a decent amount of time, although some species want to move to deeper water as they get older. We actually saw fish that we tagged on shallower platforms emigrate toward deeper platforms over the time period that we were monitoring, although not move back.
“We even did experiments where we took fish off platforms and tried translocating them to natural habitat, sometimes up to nine miles away across deep water, and we found that some species came back to the platforms,” sometimes by the next day. Environmental groups suggested that enough fish could be moved to establish new colonies elsewhere, but Lowe’s group found mixed results.
“In other cases, we tagged fish that use some of the platforms off Long Beach like high-rise hotels,” moving to different levels during the year, he said. “It gave us insight into how these environmental conditions regulate fishes’ movements by depth, not necessarily geographically.”
The rig research involved Lowe’s students including Kim Anthony, who received both her B.S. in marine biology and M.S. in biology from CSULB and now is a senior marine biologist with Southern California Edison.
“Primarily, I’m the lead on permitting and compliance for coastal and offshore projects that SCE is engaged in, particularly at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station,” coordinating with station personnel and other SCE departments, she explained. She collaborates with state and federal agencies and also provides oversight of monitoring and management of SCE’s 174-acre artificial giant kelp reef offshore of San Clemente.
“I chose to work with Chris Lowe because I knew that he would foster not only the academic and research skill development that is important as a student, but he would also provide unique opportunities to apply those skills in current, real world marine and coastal ecology issues…and I like fish,” Anthony said. “CSULB provided me with many opportunities and connections in and outside of the Lowe Lab that helped pave my way into the career path I have chosen at this time.”
The new legislation is opening other doors to science because companies that decommission a platform must contribute to a new state environmental research and education fund. “I always look at these offshore platforms in terms of how we study fish behavior as being really valuable laboratories because you’d be hard-pressed to find a natural system that would look or replicate all the characteristics that a platform does,” Lowe said.
Moreover, some firms are looking at ex-oil platforms for potential wind or wave energy production, with power coming ashore via electrical cables, so Lowe and others hope to study how the cables’ electric fields might influence the distribution or migration of marine animals who can sense electricity.
“My ultimate dream is to be able to take one of these platforms off Long Beach and convert it into a state-of-the-art marine laboratory,” operated in collaboration with a variety of universities, government agencies and businesses, he said. “There’s nowhere else you can go in the world and have a laboratory right on the edge of the continental shelf.”
The Southern California Marine Institute—a multi-institution organization of which CSULB is a lead campus—is developing a new facility at San Pedro Harbor’s City Dock 1 that could service such an offshore lab. “The platform is already in place, so we could use this as a melding of engineering and computer science and alternative energy with biology and make it a multi-use facility,” that could even host school field trips and serve as an educational outreach hub for the rest of the world, Lowe said.
“I see this as being a really exciting opportunity for California and it’s been interesting to be involved with it from when it was just pumping oil to the possibilities of what these platforms can evolve into.”