Oil platforms like this one provide rich underwater  habitat and Recfishwest hopes nine of them at the  Mackerel Islands can be retained as artificial reefs  rather than being totally removed.

Thevenard artificial sweetener

Artificial reefs appear to be flavour of the month, if this edition’s content is anything to go by.

On page 35 we have Recfishwest talking about their value, and on page 47 the nifty Reef Vision citizen science project gets a mention.

Artificial reefs are nothing new and they have been in use around the world for many years in various forms, with the Chinese having them since 1456BC.

A couple of years back the Fisheries Research and Development Commission noted that “artificial reefs are used in more than 50 countries around the world for purposes including enhanced fish and other seafood production, ecosystem recovery, modification of coastal processes and as offsets for reduced access or destruction of fishing grounds.”

They haven’t always worked historically, but there is no doubting the science and technology around them has improved dramatically in recent years.

No longer are we just lobbing loads of old tyres into the ocean and hoping for the best, these days artificial reefs are carefully designed and installed to absolutely maximise their benefits, not only to anglers like us, but to the whole marine environment.

It’s an absolute given that new underwater structure will become a new home for various fish species surprisingly quickly.

A mate of mine who worked on oil rigs once told me that within a day of installing any sort of new infrastructure onto a previously barren patch of bottom there would be schools of fish around it.

Not just sometimes, but every single time they did it.

Of course, none of this is news to anyone who has fished in the northern half of WA and seen one of the many various types of oil and gas platforms that dot the ocean in that part of the world.

On a vast area of open water, they provide points of difference that are honey pots for many popular recreational fishing species and it is important to note that they don’t just attract any nearby fish, but actually increase the productivity of these waters with the resulting benefits to overall fish stocks.

Get anywhere near them and the sounder invariably lights up with fish, while we all know people who have ignored the 500m exclusion rule to try their luck around the structures.

Plenty of anglers stay just outside the exclusion zone and still do okay on the fringes, but those people who ignore the rules and venture closer, inevitably tell stories of amazing fishing frenzies under the shadows of the platforms.

There’s also plenty of YouTube videos of employees on these platforms throwing food scraps to schools of monster GTs and hungry tuna, so it’s obvious their fishing potential were we to be allowed better access.

In the United States it is evidently a different story when it comes to angler access.

Fishing around oil rigs has been an accepted part of the American recreational fishing landscape in some areas for many years.

The Gulf of Mexico, in particular, is known for this type of fishing and not only are you allowed to fish right to the rigs, recreational fishing boats are even allowed to tie up to some of them.

There are even specialised rig fishing charters. What they have also been doing there since the ‘80s is expanding their existing artificial reef programs by turning their expired platforms into habitat enhancement structures, a practice also employed by other nations such as Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand.

It’s a different type of thinking to what we’ve traditionally had here in WA and has a basis in their historical activities around rigs in the US well before we had them here, but the vision of a few key proponents may soon change that through a ground-breaking artificial reefs project off Onslow.

We at Western Angler are regular visitors to the Mackerel Islands through our annual Seafari at Thevenard Island and are all too aware of the number of reef platforms in the nearby waters, and all the rich marine ecosystems which have developed around them over many years.

Species found in big numbers around these relatively shallow water rigs include many species of trevally, cod, tuskfish, coral trout, cobia and huge groper, and research has shown these habitats are often far more productive than natural reefs when it comes to overall fish stocks in the surrounding areas.

In total there are nine platforms still remaining around Thevenard Island, a combination of six monopods and three tripods.

Operated by Chevron Australia, these platforms are no longer operational and are in the process of being decommissioned, but rather than see them totally removed as has traditionally been the case in WA, Recfishwest has been speaking to the operator about a better social, economic and environmental option in the form of turning them into habitat enhancement structures.

In essence they actually already are exactly that and have been providing ecologically valuable ecosystems for decades, with Recfishwest keen to see these reefs left in the water rather than being removed.

Recfishwest CEO Andrew Rowland said many fishers in the our North-West readily recognised how good these types of manmade structures were for providing habitat that supported great fishing.

He said combining future decommissioning activities with the latest science on purpose-built reef design provided a massive opportunity for the recreational fishing sector to create new marine habitat that supports healthy populations of important demersal and pelagic species.

As someone who visits the area regularly purely to fish, I think the project is very exciting and has the potential to only enhance what is already a great recreational fishing location for many years to come.

Obviously, those who manage the Mackerel Islands can also see the potential benefits to their business to have a number of giant underwater FADs nearby, and the bigger picture would be the possibility of more initiatives like this being rolled across WA.

If the bold plan comes to fruition it would see some of the underwater structure retained to continue to provide rich habitat for local marine life.

Whatever the end state for the platforms, the wells will be secured with permanent plugs well below the sea floor in accordance with the regulations, ensuring any activity around structure retained would not compromise its integrity.

Recfishwest wants all nine platforms at the Mackerels to remain as artificial reefs and they believe with the right approach and augmentation with additional purpose-built reef modules the area off Onslow could provide great fishing for decades if not centuries to come, with benefits for locals, tourism, fishers, divers and the marine environment.There will obviously need to be proper steps taken to prevent these old platforms from becoming a shipping hazard, although a number are in such shallow water and so close to natural reefs that no large vessel should be passing close to them anyway.

Surely with modern navigational technology, recording the locations on charts and if necessary installing buoys to warn of any navigational hazards should minimise any risk.

Hopefully any challenges with government regulators can be overcome given the potential of this project to optimise the benefits for a wide range of stakeholders, with this infrastructure able to provide significant socioeconomic and environmental benefits. It is also interesting to note this same debate is currently happening in California as it considers the best option for decommissioning its offshore rigs, and the proponents of its Rigs to Reefs campaign push for their retention.

Thanks to the vision and determination of a few individuals driving this project in the face of some opposition and scepticism, we stand at the edge of an exciting new era of marine resource management in WA.

All going well, we could have nine new artificial reefs in time for our Mackerel Islands Seafari in 2021!

Caption: Oil platforms like this one provide rich underwater habitat and Recfishwest hopes nine of them at the Mackerel Islands can be retained as artificial reefs rather than being totally removed.