An Analysis of Artificial Reef Fish Community Structure along the Northwestern Gulf of Mexico Shelf: Potential Impacts of “Rigs-to-Reefs” Programs
Artificial structures are the dominant complex marine habitat type along the northwestern Gulf of Mexico (GOM) shelf. These habitats can consist of a variety of materials, but in this region are primarily comprised of active and reefed oil and gas platforms. Despite being established for several decades, the fish communities inhabiting these structures remain poorly investigated. Between 2012 and 2013 we assessed fish communities at 15 sites using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). Fish assemblages were quantified from standing platforms and an array of artificial reef types (Liberty Ships and partially removed or toppled platforms) distributed over the Texas continental shelf. The depth gradient covered by the surveys (30–84 m) and variability in structure density and relief also permitted analyses of the effects of these characteristics on fish richness, diversity, and assemblage composition. ROVs captured a variety of species inhabiting these reefs from large transient piscivores to small herbivorous reef fishes. While structure type and relief were shown to influence species richness and community structure, major trends in species composition were largely explained by the bottom depth where these structures occurred. We observed a shift in fish communities and relatively high diversity at approximately 60 m bottom depth, confirming trends observed in previous studies of standing platforms. This depth was also correlated with some of the largest Red Snapper captured on supplementary vertical longline surveys. Our work indicates that managers of artificial reefing programs (e.g., Rigs-to-Reefs) in the GOM should carefully consider the ambient environmental conditions when designing reef sites. For the Texas continental shelf, reefing materials at a 50–60 m bottom depth can serve a dual purpose of enhancing diving experiences and providing the best potential habitat for relatively large Red Snapper.