Popular fishing spot to get reef

10 22, 2014 by Daily Comet

An artificial reef is being built at the site of the storied fishing hole known as the Pickets.

The Pickets was a series of oil wells and platforms installed in 10 feet of water off Terrebonne Parish's coast. It was decommissioned and disassembled per federal regulations after being sold by Houston-based Apache Corp. oil company.

Also known as Ship Shoal 26, the components of the Pickets were installed some 40 years ago. Wellhead pilings and supports for the platforms created a gathering place for speckled trout making the spot popular for anglers out of south Terrebonne.

"A while back there might have been 20 or 30 boats out here on a weekend catching speckled trout," said David Cresson, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana, as his boat approached the now vacant site of the reef.

Though the decades, currents running around the structures created so-called scour holes on the waterbed below the structure. Contractors are currently dumping some 14,000 tons limestone rocks around these holes to create an artificial reef.

The holes provide an area for bait fish to linger and attract larger sport fish sought by anglers, said John Walther, chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana Habitat Committee. It will also create hard bottom among miles of muddy water bottom that will attract more life to the immediate vicinity.

Marker buoys will be placed on the site after construction is completed so anglers can locate the reefs.

"To be able to preserve this historic reef is going to make opportunities now and in the future," said Mark Schexnayder, deputy assistant secretary of Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, at a brief dedication ceremony held in Cocodrie Tuesday.

Ownership of the Pickets was transferred from Apache Corp. to Houston-based Fieldwood Energy as part of a larger, $3.75 million sale of Apache's shelf assets. Fieldwood was required to remove the structure per federal rules pertaining to idle platforms.

"We are required by federal law to remove the structures but wanted to come up with a solution that would preserve this renowned fishing area for generations to come," said John Seeger, Fieldwood's vice president of decommissioning.

The project will cost $1.2 million to complete. The state will pay half the cost, while Apache Corp., Fieldwood Energy and the Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana split the other half of the cost.

Tim Allen, general manager for Apache's local operations, said the project illustrates his company's commitment to preserving the environment. Apache is one of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes' primary landowners, holding some 275,000 acres of land locally.

The state's portion of the money comes from the Artifical Reef Fund. The beginning of this project is timely for supporters of a Nov. 4 ballot measure, Constitutional Amendment 8, which would protect that fund from being used to plug other holes in the state's budget.

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration has dipped into the reef fund multiple times in recent years to help balance the state budget, diverting some $60 million dedicated to reefs to cover shortfalls in other state programs.

State Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, authored the constitutional amendment in 2013.

“They’ve used it to plug holes in the budget, and to me that’s just not right,” Allain said earlier this summer. “It’s just too important an issue and too important a project to do that.”

Federal law requires that oil platforms be decommissioned and pulled ashore one year after production ends, an expensive operation for oil companies. The reef program, established in 1986, allows oil companies to instead haul the rigs to designated reef areas. In exchange, the companies donate half of their savings to the Artificial Reef Trust Fund.

"I'd argue its not state money anyways," said Cresson, whose organization supports the measure to protect the fund.

The state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries says 71 offshore reefs using portions of 320 obsolete platforms have been built through the program. Another 30 inshore reefs have been built, often with crushed limestone, concrete or other unused construction materials.

“If we don’t have a very strong rigs-to-reefs program where these rigs can be decommissioned and left in the Gulf to remain as artificial reefs, we’re going to lose a huge habitat that we have for all kinds of species in the Gulf,” Allain said.

Supporters of artificial reef efforts contend the reefs attract and support species such as snapper, grouper, cobia and mackerel that are popular targets for recreational anglers, while others argue these areas promote life or simply concentrate numerous fish for an easy catch.