Earlier this year, one of spearfisherman Terry "Papa Smurf" Migaud's favorite oil platforms was removed. It was the Main Pass 305 platform, which Migaud said hosted "wall to wall" grouper in the winter, and large schools of amberjacks and snapper in the summer — along with a large variety of tropical fish.

When Robert Salvaggio took a recent fishing trip out of Shell Beach, he was astonished to see that of the estimated 20 platforms he regularly fished to the east of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, only one was left. All the rigs had been there, he said, on his last trip out just a year ago.

"All the rigs I used to fish at are gone," Salvaggio said.

Salvaggio rattled off some of the rigs he went to for spectacular speckled trout fishing: Cement Land 2, Pope's Chair, Holy Cross.

Salvaggio said the rigs removed in the past year were very popular with older fishermen, largely because they were the closest to land.

The 68-year-old Migaud has been diving around oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico for almost half of a century, and is a member of the Hell Divers Spearfishing Club.

Migaud's memories of diving around the Main Pass 305 Platform, which he acknowledges may have been damaged by Hurricane Katrina, go back at least 30 years.

There's no natural reef that can compare to a platform, Migaud said of his diving trips in the Caribbean, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Honduras.

"They are fantastically beautiful," he said, adding that the loss of the habitat provided by the platforms as "tremendous."

Officials with the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement say the legislation for removing the rigs has been on the books since the 1970s, but numerous fishermen and scientists who make regular trips out in the Gulf of Mexico claim it has been in the past two years that they have really noticed a more rapid rate of rig removal.

Watching the development and growth of fish habitats on and around platforms over five decades, Migaud knows firsthand that the best fishing and diving environments take decades to build. It takes time, Migaud said, for the coral, sponges and barnacles to populate the rigs before attracting the fish.

These platforms in the Gulf, said Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium Professor Dr. Paul Sammarco, "are some of the most productive habitats on earth in terms of ecosystem production."

Hell Divers president Paul Cozig agreed.

"People go to the Florida Keys to dive when what we've got in our backyard with the oil rigs — and the abundance of fish — is incredible," Cozig said.

Sammarco has spent the past 12 years studying and documenting the geographic expansion of coral species in the Gulf of Mexico, with particularly focus on how the platforms have facilitated the expansion.

"If those platforms weren't there," he said, "the expansion would have never occurred."

And along with the coral communities, Sammarco said, comes the fish communities. 

Sammarco said he views the platforms as a network of islands, allowing various species to "island hop" throughout the Gulf.  In his research, Lamarcco said most of the coral species found on platforms came from the region's only "true" natural coral reef, the Flower Garden National Marine Sanctuary, located about 100 miles southeast of Galveston, Texas.

With approximately 3,500 non-producing rigs in the Gulf, the impact of the "islands" in terms of flora and fauna habitat, is significant, Sammarco said.

That means that, over decades, the rigs have become a very important part of the ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico, he said.

Citing the snapper fishery as an example of the role played by oil rigs, Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council Chairman Dr. Bob Shipp said that for about 100 years after the harvest of snapper began the entire harvest came from east of Mobile Bay.

Now, Shipp said, 70 percent of the annual snapper take comes from west of Mobile Bay.

"The big difference is the habitat that was created by the rigs," Shipp said.

In April, Shipp introduced a motion at the council meeting to establish artificial reef structures, including rigs, as so-called "Essential Fish Habitats."

In a rare moment of cohesiveness among the council members, Shipp said, the motion passed unanimously. Now the council must go through a potentially lengthy process of turning the motion into an amendment. The steps toward formalizing the amendment includes public hearings and hammering out specific details, such as defining which underwater structures can be defined as artificial reefs — and thus as EFHs.

And as governmental agencies continue to enforce legislation holding oil and gas companies accountable for removing rigs shortly after decommissioning, unlikely partnerships are being formed among sportsmen, environmentalists and scientists in order to send the message to legislators that with every rig removed, a unique and valuable ecosystem is removed — killed —along with it.

Each rig is different, playing host to different fish, said Migaud and Cozig, giving the exploration an added element of excitement and adventure.

Cozig, who goes on diving trips nearly every week, said 98 percent of the spearfishing he does is around rigs. And, he said, 98 percent of his best catches are at those same rigs.

"What's weird," said Cozig, "is that you've got a bunch of different organizations that didn't get along well coming together for a common cause."

The goal is not to stop the removal of all rigs, Shipp said, but rather to slow the process, explore the least-detrimental ways to remove some rigs, and require more comprehensive study and analysis of the costs and benefits of the rigs remaining in place.

When rigs are removed using underwater explosives, a very large number of fish are killed, Sammarco said. Other lifeforms attached to rig also die, whether the pieces are removed from the water or fall to the depths where most life cannot survive.

Getting the unused rigs declared as Essential Fish Habitats,  Sammarco said, would be a "very important step." He said the legal determination that accompanies the EFH designation would automatically render those rigs as a "highly protected environment."

Miguad, Colzig and Salvaggio said they will continue to dive and fish around their favorite rigs that remain, knowing that any one may disappear — along with the entire ecosystems they support — at any given moment.

"How anyone in their right minds can pull these out …," Cozig said. "The abundance of sea life on these things — it's a huge loss to everyone."