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Mixing Oil and Water: Naturalizing Offshore Oil Platforms in Gulf Coast Aquariums


On 26 June 2010, the brand new Gulf of Mexico exhibit at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa opened devoid of life. The tanks were purposefully left empty, rather than showing the vibrant aquatic life of the Gulf, to highlight the oil spill associated with BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling incident earlier in 2010. According to the museum's press release, the museum wanted

to open a Gulf exhibit recognizing the crisis that is happening on the Gulf Coast … The exhibit, without fish, now has the opportunity to make a bold statement related to the oil spill in the Gulf Coast by asking Museum & Aquarium visitors to imagine a lifeless Gulf.1

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1 National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, “Imagine a Lifeless Gulf,” press release, 18 Jun. 2010.

2 See Gramling, Robert and Freudenburg, William, “Attitudes toward Offshore Oil Development: A Summary of Current Evidence,” Ocean & Coastal Management, 49 (2006), 442–61; and Freudenburg, William and Gramling, Robert, Oil in Troubled Waters: Perceptions, Politics, and the Battle over Offshore Drilling (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994).

3 Although offshore platforms are technically not rigs (the former are used in the production phase of oil and gas extraction while the latter is used during the drilling phase), the phrase Rigs-to-Reefs refers to the repurposing of any offshore oil and gas structure as an artificial reef. Locals in the Gulf Coast often use “rig” as a synonym for a standing offshore oil and gas platform when they refer to fishing around it.

4 Falk, John H., Reinhard, Eric M., Vernon, Cynthia L., Bronnenkant, Kerry, Deans, Nora L., and Heimlich, Joe E., Why Zoos & Aquariums Matter: Assessing the Impact of a Visit (Silver Spring, MD: Association of Zoos & Aquariums, 2007).

5 Adelman, Leslie, Falk, John H., and James, Sylvia, “Impact of National Aquarium in Baltimore on Visitors’ Conservation Attitudes, Behavior, and Knowledge,” Curator, 43 (2000), 3366.

6 Falk, John H., Storksdieck, Martin, and Dierking, Lynn D., “Investigating Public Science Interest and Understanding: Evidence for the Importance of Free-Choice Learning,” Public Understanding of Science, 16 (2007), 455–69.

7 Falk, John H. and Adelman, Leslie M., “Investigating the Impact of Prior Knowledge and Interest on Aquarium Visitor Learning,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 40 (2003), 163–76. As a corollary, the authors note that “most experts do not find museum-like settings ideal for dramatically furthering their knowledge” (172).

8 For a discussion of the challenges of updating an exhibit to address a new public controversy see Macdonald, Susan and Silverstone, Roger, “Science on Display: The Representation of Scientific Controversy in Museum Exhibitions,” Public Understanding of Science, 1 (1992), 6987.

9 Gray, Garry C. and Zendzia, Victoria Bishop, “Organizational Self-Censorship: Corporate Sponsorship, Nonprofit Funding, and the Educational Experience,” Canadian Sociological Association/La Société canadienne de sociologie, 46 (2009), 161–77.

10 Joe Nick Patoski, “Go Fish,” Texas Monthly (Oct. 1990), 180.

11 Sally Hoke, Texas State Aquarium, personal communication. The author viewed the film at the Louisiana State University library, which holds a copy in their Education Resource Center.

12 Aquarium without Walls, written, produced and directed by Paul K. Driessen, funding provided by Exxon Corporation, 1989.

13 ABQ Biopark Aquarium follows the ecosystems of the Rio Grande from its headwaters along the Texas–Mexico border to the Gulf of Mexico, so even though New Mexico is not considered in the Gulf region, the aquarium design follows the patterns of the Gulf region.

14 Committee on Disposition of Offshore Platforms, Disposal of Offshore Platforms (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1985), 9.

15 Ditton, Robert B. and Graefe, Alan R., Recreational Fishing Use of Artificial Reefs on the Texas Coast (Austin, TX: Texas Coastal and Marine Council, 1978).

16 C. A. Bedinger, ed., Ecological Investigations of Petroleum Production Platforms in the Central Gulf of Mexico, 3 vols., MMS 1981–16 (San Antonio: Southwest Research Institute for the Bureau of Land Management, 1981).

17 Ibid., vol. 2, 89.

18 Ibid., vol. 3, 16.

19 A study commissioned by the Fish and Wildlife Service stated that platforms have a “reef” effect because of the biofouling organisms that can attach to the structures and create food and shelter for fish. Benny J. Gallaway, An Ecosystem Analysis of Oil and Gas Development on the Texas–Louisiana Continental Shelf, FWS/OBS-81/27 (Washington, DC: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Biological Services, 1981). Another study issued in 1982 came to the same conclusion that petroleum structures increased the abundance and diversity of reef fish in the Gulf. Continental Shelf Associates, Study of the Effect of Oil and Gas Activities on Reef Fish Populations in the Gulf of Mexico OCS Area, MMS 1982–40 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Land Management, 1982).

20 Duffy, McFadden, “From Rigs to Reefs,” Louisiana Conservationist, 27 (1975), 1821. The magazine is the official publication of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

21 Ferguson, Maury Osborn, “Underwater Communities,” Texas Parks & Wildlife, 40 (1982), 27. The magazine is the official publication of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

22 Weeks, Ann, “Fish Cities: A New School of Design,” NOAA, 2 (April 1972), 27.

23 H. R. 1041 and H. R. 1897. Earlier attempts at legislation had also been made (S. 3094 of 1978 and H. R. 4413, H. R. 4714 and S. 325 of 1979), but no hearings had been held.

24 Hearings before the Subcommittee on Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation and the Environment of the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, House of Representatives, Ninety-Seventh Congress on Establishment of a National Artificial Reef Policy–H. R. 1041, H. R. 1897, 11 Sept. 1981, Serial No. 97–35 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1982), 1–2.

25 There were several failed legislative attempts to get a national artificial reef plan, but these will not be discussed here.

26 Richard B. Stone, National Artificial Reef Plan, NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS OF-6 (Washington, DC: US Department of Commerce, 1985).

27 See Jørgensen, Dolly, “An Oasis in a Watery Desert? Discourses on an Industrial Ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico Rigs-to-Reefs Program,” History and Technology, 25 (2009), 343–64, for a full discussion of the discourses at work in the Gulf of Mexico Rigs-to-Reefs concept.

28 Wilson, Charles A., Virginia R. Van Sickle, and David L. Pope, Louisiana Artificial Reef Plan, Technical Bulletin No. 41 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, 1987), vii.

29 C. Dianne Stephan et al., Texas Artificial Reef Fishery Management Plan, Fishery Management Plan Series, No. 3 (Austin: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, 1990), [1].

30 This is obvious in the contents of the papers in the sessions on Rigs-to-Reefs in Proceedings: Fourth Annual Gulf of Mexico Information Transfer Meeting, 15–17 Nov. 1983, New Orleans, LA, OCS Study MMS 84-0026 (New Orleans: Minerals Management Service, 1984); and Proceedings: Fifth Annual Gulf of Mexico Information Transfer Meeting, 27–29 Nov. 1984, New Orleans, LA, OCS Study MMS 85-0008 (New Orleans: Minerals Management Service, 1985). Major studies later include Villere Reggio, Rigs-to-Reefs: The Use of Obsolete Petroleum Structures as Artificial Reefs, OCS Report MMS 87-0015 (New Orleans: Minerals Management Service, 1987); and Villere Reggio, compiler, Petroleum Structures as Artificial Reefs: A Compendium, OCS Study MMS 89-0021 (New Orleans: Minerals Management Service, 1989).

31 Southwest Newswire, “Tenneco Inc. Announces $250,000 Contribution to Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans,” 3 May 1988.

32 I should note that while oil companies certainly supported the Rigs-to-Reefs concept, the programs were primarily pushed by recreational fishing and diving interests. Since the inception of programs in Louisiana and Texas, only about 10% of the obsolete structures have been donated by the oil companies as artificial reefs. In many cases, there is actually very little cost savings and more paperwork to donate the structure, thus the industry may be more interested in it as an environmental goodwill activity than as a money-saving activity.

33 Ann Bull et al., Islands of Life: A Teacher's Companion, OCS Report MMS 2005-065, revised edn (New Orleans: MMS, 2005). The first printing was in 1997.

34 Ibid., 3.

35 Ibid., 15–16.

36 MMS was reorganized as BOEMRE in response to the Deepwater Horizon incident in 2010.

37 “Treasures of the Gulf Coast Webcast,” Texas Parks & Wildlife, available at, accessed 2 Dec. 2011.

38 “Rivers to the Ocean Webcast,” Texas Parks & Wildlife, available at, accessed 2 Dec. 2011.

39 “Water, Wildlife, and You Webcast,” Texas Parks & Wildlife, available at, accessed 2 Dec. 2011.

40 “Aquarium Habitats,” National Geographic, available at, accessed 2 Dec. 2011; and “The Pros and Cons of Artificial Reefs,” National Geographic, available at, accessed 2 Dec. 2011.

41 Some of the arguments that have been leveled against converting platforms into reefs in the California debate are that artificial reefs only concentrate fish, making them easier to catch; that the structures might cause long-term pollution; that reefs should be made only out of rocks (a “natural” material); and that the oil companies have an obligation to remove the structures and return the seabed to its original state. See Sally Holbrook et al., “Ecological Issues Related to Decommissioning of California's Offshore Production Platforms,” report to the University of California Marine Council (2000) for a complete discussion of these issues in a Californian context. The political context of the California Rigs-to-Reefs debate is also discussed in Rothback, Dan, “Rigs-to-Reefs: Refocusing the Debate in California,” Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum, 17 (2007), 283–95; and Schroeder, Donna and Love, Milton, “Ecological and Political Issues Surrounding Decommissioning of Offshore Oil Facilities in the Southern California Bight,” Ocean and Coastal Management, 47 (2004), 2148.

42 See Villareal, T. A. et al. , “Petroleum Production Platforms as Sites for the Expansion of Ciguatera in the Northwestern Gulf of Mexico,” Harmful Algae, 6 (2007), 253–59; and Sheehy, Daniel and Vik, Susan, “The Role of Constructed Reefs in Non-indigenous Species Introductions and Range Expansions,” Ecological Engineering, 36 (2010), 111.

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