Written By: Dylan Ruan, Living Lab Intern, UCSB Sustainability

The coastal shelf of California is peppered with a number of oil and gas platforms. These heavy industrial facilities have presented challenges regarding environmental impact in both their active drilling and dormant decommissioned states. UCSB biologist, Milton Love, has led a research team conducting and exploring the potential for these rigs to have a new life after their retirements. This effort has come to be known as the concept of “rigs to reefs.”

The water columns of oil platforms have been found to harbor various sorts of rockfishes in the midwater with larger, and often adult, fishes congregating at the bottom. Not all species of fishes are found multiplying around the rigs, but most of the ones that are have commercial and recreational value.

“These are really just large reefs,” Love said. “And they’re filled not only with fishes but millions, hundreds of millions, probably billions of other animals, sea stars, sea anemones, mussels, and barnacles.”

When Love and his associates measured the secondary productivity of the platforms, which consisted of the number of fishes on the platforms, their density, and growth rate, they found that the oil rigs were the most productive areas in the world for fish populations.

The platforms may have also aided in the rebound of fish population numbers. Take the Boccaccio for instance, which was once one of the most overfished species of fish in the state, but have begun appearing in thousands around the rigs’ thriving ecosystems. Much of the sentiment towards leaving decommissioned rigs in the water rests on the compromise that they will be dismantled and trimmed to an extent. “We did a study a few years back that showed that even if you cut them 100 feet below the surface,” Love said. “They would still act as nursery grounds.”

As one might expect, the idea of allowing the presence of these artificial intrusions in the ocean has stirred a great deal of controversy. The platforms have been cited as visual pollution and an emblem of the environmental movement’s quintessential nemesis, the oil and gas industry. Some believe that going as far praising the structures for their contributions to marine life is not only wrong, but also rewards the fossil fuel industry for interfering with the pristine ecosystem in search of resources. These criticisms, however, rest with individual beliefs and convictions.

More quantitative concerns have also been brought to the attention of biologists. Questions regarding the leakage and contamination of nearby waters and animals by heavy metals were studied by Dr. Love who collected fishes at platforms and away from platforms before sending them to a federal lab in Missouri to be tested.

“They couldn’t find a difference in the amount of heavy metals,” he said. “The things you might expect; Mercury, Cadmium, Barium, Lead, the kind of things industrial facilities-particularly drilling facilities, you might expect to see in higher amounts. There was no difference in any of those elements between control fishes and fishes around platforms.”

“Most of the questions,” Love said. “Come down to: how important are platforms as fish habitat?”

Aside from his research on rigs to reefs, Love also works with the Doug McCauley lab on the giant sea bass project. His work attracts a community of collaborators including the United States Geological Survey, Bureau of Offshore Energy Management, and National Fisheries Service. Love and his associate, Mary Nishimoto, are currently working on the Bon project which serves to to develop a Biodiversity Observation Network (BON) in the test bed of the Santa Barbara Channel and are looking to bring two of their undergraduate researchers on board.

When asked how he prefers to communicate his research to the public, Love responded with “interpretive dances….is what I’d like it to be. Unfortunately, I have no sense of rhythm.”

Lectures, however, are not difficult for Love. As someone who enjoys giving speeches and is an effective communicator, Love has recently joined the UCSB Sustainability Speakers Bureau, a network of faculty who are open to giving talks to the community about topics related to sustainability.