The number 359 has taken on a new meaning for some Louisiana anglers and conservationists: That's the estimated number of Gulf of Mexico rigs and platforms scheduled for removal this year, according to a release by DecomWorld distributed on Jan. 15.

And according to Dr. Bob Shipp, chairman of the University of South Alabama Department of Marine Sciences, that number is way too high because removal of any decommissioned rig is premature, if not blatantly detrimental to reef fish habitat.

"As a fisheries scientist, I think it's a very big mistake," he said.

To Doug Peter, Artificial Reef Program coordinator for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries, the number is high, as well — but for perhaps a slightly different reason.

"I've seen that number and it's probably rather large," he said. "I do think they could get to 280 or so, and if they're smaller (structures,) then 359 could be a realistic target. But it's hard to quantify."

What is not difficult to quantify for many in the offshore fishing community is the importance of structure to numerous species of aquatic life. And the management of no fish has been more of a hot-button topic in the Gulf States in recent years than that of the red snapper. That trend has continued into this year with the season in federal waters being limited to 27 days.

Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission members in February approved a much longer season, but there questions remain about how that move will impact the overall season framework that remains in federal hands.

That short federal season, combined with the fact that red snapper thrive around structures such as oil and gas platforms, has drawn added attention to the decommissioning program.

The policy known as "Idle Iron was issued by the U.S. Department of the Interior in September 2010 and requires offshore facilities that have not been used during the past five years for exploration or production be plugged and that the platforms be decommissioned.

But many anglers and conservationists say removing the structures associated with the drilling operations will threaten habitat and disrupt fishery management plans.

And the danger of removing these rigs isn't indirect — as the attached video shows, the work to cut off the legs of decommissioned rigs can result in the death of thousands of pounds of red snapper.

Click here to find out what Louisiana Sen. David Vitter is doing to try and stop the policy from decimating the fishery habitat.

Shipp, who also is the director of the Alabama Center for Estuarine Studies, said history and science have proved that the rigs are of great importance to a number of reef species. That is especially true, he said, of the red snapper, about whose future so much ballyhoo has been made in recent years.

"(The rigs) are all essential habitat really," he said. "From the mouth of the (Mississippi) River to (South) Padre Island, snapper are totally reliant upon artificial structure. Before the 1940s, when those rigs started going in, there was practically no snapper in the northwest Gulf.

"Now, more than half of the catch is from that area."

The public seems to be watching red snapper management closely. A standing-room-only crowd turned out for a scoping meeting held in Baton Rouge on Jan. 14 when the Gulf of Mexico Fish Management Council listened to public comment on the issue. Overwhelmingly, people speaking at the meeting said they would rather have regional management of the fishery.

The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission has gone as far as setting its own season for red snapper in state waters, as well as increasing the boundary of state waters where the fish can be caught during a longer season. Click here for more details on the state's action.

Shipp said the Louisiana Wildlife and and Fisheries Commission measures make sense considering the strength of the red snapper fishery.

"The stocks are strong," he said. "The fish are so big they blow through (the 27-day quota) quickly."

That's why he's so worried about the removal of the old rigs. And it's not just about the removal of big rigs, which some have speculated could be more ideal habitat for snapper.

"It's not about attraction, it's about transformation," Shipp said. "(The rigs) transform the fish biomass. And we've found that smaller structures scattered about are better than the one big structure. Overwhelmingly, our research shows that ….

"The big ones help, too, but in terms of total tonnage, the clusters (of small platforms) are what work best."

Ted Venker, national communications director for the Coastal Conservation Association, said a growing number of anglers already are finding that the rigs closer to shore have been removed as the drilling industry moves to deeper water. He said that, because rig leases say they must be removed when they are left dormant, industry worries about the liability of leaving an unattended rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

There are solutions, Venker says. One option is the state's Rigs to Reefs Program that allows states to assume liability of a rig once it has been moved to a designated reefing area. The establishment of additional reefing areas in 100 to 200 feet of water would be a good start, he said.

Another possibility includes the idea of "reefing in place" which, in short, would allow decommissioned rigs to be left on the ocean floor where they were once stood.

Venker said a moratorium was placed on that practice after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita downed dozens of rigs and complaints were made about "leaving garbage" underwater. Venker said lifting that moratorium would allow for the continuance of the structure important to reef fish such as red snapper.

The LDWF's Peter hinted that economics plays a role in the decision to create or maintain a man-made reef.

"We also have to keep in mind that, if we take over a reef, if for whatever reason we have to remove it, we'd have to pay for it. Selecting a site and creating a site — we have to be mindful of what we do," he said.

He said the same goes for businesses when making that decision, as it's cheaper to get a small rig back to shore than it is to make it a reef.

"It's economics," he said. "It's not all about that, but it is a driving factor in it."

Shipp said he'd rather see 100-percent participation in Rigs to Reefs.

"There are legal aspects to it, but they can be worked out," Shipp said. "It's not just snapper. There are protected corals that you'd kill by removing the rigs. And if they use explosives in the process, you could lose hundreds, if not thousands, of finfish. There's possibly a legal ramification in that.

"It's going to be interesting to see how it all plays out."