CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Recently discovered shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico are revealing information about the viability of using old oil rig platforms as deepwater reefs while yielding vital new information about life in the Gulf of Mexico.
Dr. Thomas Shirley, endowed chair for biodiversity for conservation science for the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies (HRI) at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, was part of an international team of biologists and archeologists that visited the sites of six ships sunk in the Gulf of Mexico. The team of multidisciplinary explorers was assembled by the National Oceanographic Partnership Program (NOPP) after the ruins were discovered during a pre-drilling survey for a major oil company.
“Before drilling can begin studies must be conducted to make sure that natural habitats are not destroyed either at the site or where the lines lead back to shore,” said Shirley. “While surveying, they discovered the ships at various depths which gave us an unprecedented opportunity to see if deep-water artificial reefs will produces additional fish communities.”
Scientists from the Mineral Management Service (MMS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) focused on the potential of deep water oil and gas structures to create suitable habitat for marine life. The team’s research resulted in a report titled “Deepwater Program: The Archaeological and Biological Analysis of World War II Shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico; A Pilot Study of the Artificial Reef Effect in Deepwater.” On Thursday, May 17, the MMS honored the two federal agencies with the NOPP’s “Excellence in Partnering” award.
Among the sites visited by the team was the wreckage of the Alcoa Puritan, a 6,795-ton freighter sunk by a German submarine as it sailed into the Gulf of Mexico in May 1942. Scientists discovered that artificial reefs attract fish communities up to a depth of about 2,500 feet and are effective invertebrates at even greater depths. According to Shirley, that’s good news for oil companies drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Oil rigs are being decommissioned at a rate of about 100 a year and, with the oil companies drilling in deeper Gulf waters it is economically and ecologically advantageous to remove the topsides and leave the deep water portion intact,” said Shirley. “By doing this, the oil companies save money, a portion of which goes into the “Rigs for Reefs’ program.”
Shirley’s study of deep water habitats is also crucial to the 50-year update of “Bulletin 89: The Gulf of Mexico- Its Origin, Waters, and Marine Life” compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1954. When completed, the update will make the Gulf of Mexico one of the most extensively studied bodies of water in the world.
“Because the undersea world is the least studied part of the Earth’s environment the vast majority of species out there haven’t been described or defined,” said Shirley. “Every cruise I go on, most of what I see hasn’t been identified. But, just because something’s rare or undiscovered doesn’t mean it’s not important to the environment.”
Shirley was joined on the expedition by doctoral student Aaron Baldwin, now an assistant professor at Sheldon Jackson University in Sitka, Alaska. Graduate student Morgan Kilour, who received her master’s degree in biology at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s spring commencement, assisted Shirley with his research.
Shirley joined the HRI in July 2005. A former professor of invertebrate biology at the University of Alaska, he has conducted extensive research and participated in graduate education in the marine sciences. He has also served as principal investigator on numerous manned submersible research projects and published and lectured extensively.
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