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Science & Hi Tech: Oil rigs help biologists unlock mystery of ocean life
Posted on Sunday, January 04, 2004 @ 15:13:57 GMT by Rons_ROV_Links

SCIENCE & TECH NEWSFrom his office in downtown New Orleans, Dan Allen can see to the bottom of the ocean.
Allen, a marine biologist with Chevron Texaco, studies the ocean's depths using images from the remote-controlled vehicles that fix oil pipelines and wells on the sea floor as well as the eyes of hundreds of workers manning offshore platforms. Allen Walker / Special to the Chronicle Fish school around a platform in the Gulf of Mexico.
"We just recently discovered a very large shark in the Gulf of Mexico in about 10,000 feet of water. It was the first ever observed in the Gulf," Allen said. "We want to get feedback from people offshore as to what they are seeing when and where."

fish Fish school around a platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

For land-bound academics and the hardcore biologists working for major corporations, oil exploration has become a surrogate for scientific research unlike ever before.

Traditionally, the offshore work has been known more for the risks it poses to marine wildlife than the benefits for research. While federal laws and conditions placed on companies when they purchase leases have protected marine mammals since the mid-1970s, it wasn't until the 1990s that companies and the federal government started funding basic research.

But more recently, as the search for oil has delved into deeper and deeper water, encroaching on the home of more marine species, platform workers have begun to aid researchers in identifying rare and endangered sea creatures and to fill voids in their own knowledge of the deep sea.

fish A hawksbill turtle, on the endangered species list, pulls itself onto a platform.

On five of Shell's deep-water platforms in the Gulf, employees will soon get a review of marine biology ## a poster that identifies the 34 most common marine mammals. Chevron Texaco will place field guides on its offshore rigs to help engineers and other offshore employees pinpoint species. And BP, in an operation called "Serpent," gave permission for its remote vehicles in the North Sea to search the dark water looking for organisms. In Galveston, the company is funding a taxonomist to help construct a biological atlas.

fish Red Creole Fish, Blue Tang, yellow Spanish Hogfish and striped Sergent Majors swim near an oil rig platform off the Mississippi coast.

"Companies ... are providing valuable information, including remote vehicle footage, sightings and behavioral data that is outside of any required reporting but very valuable to the expanding body of knowledge of the marine mammals in the Gulf," said Caryl Fagot, a spokeswoman with Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that regulates offshore oil and natural gas operations.

"They believe that there are solutions for the oil industry and marine mammals to exist in the Gulf without adversely impacting each other," she said.

In some cases, the tutorials are ways to raise awareness about the risks associated with drilling deep. Vessels bringing food and supplies to platforms can collide with marine creatures. The explosions that topple structures at sea can kill them. And spills, along with seismic exploration, can alter behavior and affect survival.

The better that companies understand the creatures inhabiting deep water, the better those operating in their vicinity can protect them.

"It's one of those really funny things," said Janis Farmer, an environmental adviser for BP in Houston, referring to the trend. "People who work on platforms are people, too. They have always had an interest in the `beasties.' "

But for biologists, such information can be used to better understand populations of marine mammals, and perhaps identify new species.

"We've been talking with (oil companies) about cooperative studies," said Gil Rowe, head of the marine biology department at Texas A&M University in Galveston, who said the platforms of remote vehicles are idle most of the time. "It's perfectly reasonable that they can do basic science," he said.

The search for more oil deposits, coupled with advances in technology, are driving companies into deeper water.

Of the 4,019 active facilities in the Gulf, 27 operate more than 1,000 feet down into uncharted territory that is home to 20 common marine mammals ## some endangered ## and hosts of organisms still unknown to science because the waters are too deep and expensive for scientists to regularly explore.

Oil exploration was limited primarily to the more shallow continental shelf, which is inhabited by only two dolphin species.

Oil companies can "essentially give you a presence on the sea floor," said Rowe, referring to the sedan-size, remote-operated vehicles that act as underwater mechanics for the drilling operations, using cameras for sight.

"The first step is sending these pictures (recorded by the cameras) back to us, and beginning to archive all the digital images," Rowe said.

Likewise, research has shown platforms to be like magnets for marine species. As many as 200,000 fish have been cataloged under one platform off California.

"As industry activities moved into deeper oceanic waters, more species of marine mammals were in the vicinity of potential impact from those activities," Fagot said. "Also, the characteristics of various species may make them more susceptible than others to certain ... risks."

But Fagot said she knew of no injury to marine creatures directly related to oil activity in the Gulf.

Allen, a biologist with the oil industry for 23 years, said oil companies have been supporting research of oceans and marine species for years, although many of the efforts go unnoticed.

Chevron Texaco is supporting basic research, studying whether microscopic plants and animals congregate underneath platforms, and monitoring migratory birds which sometimes use the structures as perches.

"We've been doing it, we've just been kind of quiet about it," Allen said.

January 4, 2003

Source: Houston Chronicle

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