For decades in the Gulf of Mexico, oil and gas platforms have been prime fishing sites for recreational anglers, since many species of fish seek shelter in their underwater structures. "The economic benefit of artificial reefs is very clear," says Michael Miglini, the captain of a 36-foot charter boat called Orion that takes fishermen and divers out to rigs off Port Aransas, an area blessedly spared from the oil that spilled into the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in April 2010. "Creating habitat is akin to creating oases in the desert. An artificial reef is a way of boosting the ocean's capacity to create fish, to increase the life of the Gulf."
Some biologists worry that artificial reefs simply attract fish from natural reefs and may become killing zones for certain sought-after fish, such as red snapper, one of the Gulf's most harvested game fish and presumably one of the species that would gain the most by having new habitat in which to flourish.
"When it comes to red snappers, artificial reefs are bait," says James H. Cowan, Jr., a professor in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University. "If success is judged solely by an increase in harvest, then artificial reefs are pretty successful. But if those structures, which are usually deployed in shallow waters to make them more accessible to fishing, are pulling fish off natural reefs farther from the coast, they may actually be increasing the overfishing of species that are already under stress."
Some artificial reefs have become hazards to navigation and a toxic insult to the waters in which they came to rest, steadily leaking contaminants for years. The danger of pollution is the reason almost 70 percent of the Vandenberg's $8.4-million sinking budget went to cleanup efforts, including the removal of more than ten tons of asbestos and more than 800,000 feet of electrical wire. And for every foot of wire there was a foot of red tape, since artificial reefs must now be created in strict accordance with the U.S. government's National Artificial Reef Plan.
Even scrupulously planned deployments can go very wrong. When the Spiegel Grove went down prematurely off Key Largo in 2002, she landed upside down with one corner of her stern on the bottom and part of her bow above the waterline, ready to serve as a can opener to unsuspecting vessels plying the marine sanctuary. It took a massive salvage effort to get her over on her side and fully underwater, and it wasn't until three years later that Hurricane Dennis finally gave her the intended upright profile.