At the funeral of an old friend

John Walther/joincca.org

John Walther/joincca.org

As if the never-ending red snapper controversy isn’t enough for Gulf of Mexico recreational fishermen, another storm is raging in the waters off four of the five Gulf States.

Because Louisiana is in the eye of this storm, the aftermath could leave the “Sportsman’s Paradise” with problems ranking right up there with post-hurricane destruction.

By now, anyone who pays attention knows the term “idle iron.”

Like red snapper management, the federal government holds all the cards in this plan designed to remove any and all non-producing oil and gas platforms from our country’s waters.

Because Louisiana leads the nation in offshore oil and gas production, this plan hits that state’s fishermen especially hard.

Rig removal often isn’t a pretty sight: The structure basically comes in two parts: the jacket, which is made up of the “legs” that secure the rig to the sea bottom, and the superstructure that can serve any of a number of uses in exploring, pumping and/or transferring fuels.

The cutting torch, lift cranes and barges take care of the superstructure, but removing the jacket is messy. In many cases, that’s done with explosives near the bottom, and that well-documented operation kills most all marine organisms that have called the structure home for years. Yes, fish die – lots of fish, corals and everything else that could cling to the platform’s legs.

More than two decades ago Louisiana instituted a Rigs to Reefs Program, a plan that removed old platforms and selected a site to topple these rigs. Most of the superstructure was removed, and the jacket, if not toppled in place, was towed to a site then set horizontally on the Gulf floor.

Courtesy noaa.org

Courtesy noaa.org

The plan saved oil companies millions in transportation and demolition costs. The program benefited because oil companies wrote a check to the Rigs to Reefs Program in the amount of half of the dollars saved by not having to cut, tow and scrap the now-unused jackets.

Sure there have been protests. Even the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council has asked the U.S. Department of Energy for an explanation about the removal of these valuable fish-holding reefs.

Congressional delegations have asked the same, but they receive no answer.

It’s as if there is little accountability from no other federal agency to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, a federal law that demands accountability when flirting with “essential fish habitat.”

And when you look at what’s swimming under, in and around these platforms, there’s little doubt that they fulfill any “essential” requirement when it comes to providing first-rate homes for dozens of species off the Louisiana coast.

While most fishermen seldom have the chance, at least up close, to bear witness to this fish-destructive federal plan, a handful of us watched a salvage crew tear out the last piling in The Pickets, a series of oil and gas platforms off the Louisiana coast known to produce healthy numbers of speckled trout and redfish.

The area, reachable from launches at Cocodrie, Dulac and Theriot, was so named because the line of pumping platforms that looked like fence pickets that occupied a small stretch of water between Raccoon Island and Point au Fer on the state’s broad, mostly flat Central Coast. There’s a central platform in the middle of these pumpers, and that’s being torn down, too.

Years ago, The Pickets was the fishing equivalent of prospectors’ searches for the mother lode. There’s no land in sight at The Pickets, and it’s here we need to be reminded there were no high-horsepower outboards, bay boats nor pinpoint electronics to make this trek back in the 1960s. A compass – a device you don’t find on most coastal boats today – and quad maps were as important for this trip as rods and reels.

Courtesy noaa.gov

Courtesy noaa.gov

Because The Pickets was integral to petroleum production, oil-field workers knew where they were located, and the word spread to fishermen.

Guys packed boats as if they were off on an expedition rather than a day on the water. And everything – outboards, cranking batteries, anchors and anchor ropes – was checked and double checked. Have mechanical trouble out there? You were on your own. The only savior was a ship-to-shore radio.

And because of where they were, in water eight to 12 feet deep, speckled trout — big yellowmouths — populated the area along with bull redfish, pompano and white trout. In late summer, Spanish mackerel, bluefish and small sharks moved in.

The trip, and all the preparation that went with it, was worth it because these waters held loads of fish. All you had to do was figure out where the current was running and how the wind was blowing to locate the fish on those small platforms on that particular day.

Well, on Aug. 8, we watched the last piling being pulled, and couldn’t help feeling like we were attending an old friend’s funeral. It was sad. We knew what this place meant, and know what it means when we’ll be without it. The place will never be the same.

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Joe Macaluso has covered the outdoors in South Louisiana for more than 40 years and has served as the outdoors editor for The Advocate in Baton Rouge since the early 1990s. He is a long-time member of the Louisiana Outdoor Writer’s Association and is a past recipient of the association’s Arthur Van Pelt Award for lifetime achievement in conservation. He has also been honored for his coverage of college football and baseball before dedicating his career almost entirely to covering the outdoors.

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