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Scientists to Explore How North Sea Infrastructure Influences Marine Life

Ross Kelly

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North Sea

The project could influence how North Sea decommissioning programmes are approached.

Marine scientists from Heriot-Watt University are exploring the link between marine life and energy industry infrastructure, such as rigs and pipelines.

Throughout the North Sea, the base and legs of oil and gas platforms, subsea pipe networking and offshore wind farms have become a vibrant habitat for species such as mussels, barnacles and anemones.

The Orkney research team will investigate whether the species which have colonised the structures are connected across the North Sea.

Researchers from Heriot-Watt’s International Centre for Island Technology on Orkney are working with scientists from around the UK as part of the investigation.

The Connectivity of Hard Substrate Assemblages in the North Sea (CHASANS) project is one of seven funded by the Natural Environment Research Council’s Influence of Manmade Structures in the Ecosystem (INSITE) programme.

Project partners include Hull University, National Oceanographic Centre, the Natural History Museum and Aberdeen University.

Dr Jo Porter, project lead and marine scientist at Heriot-Watt’s ICIT, said the project will examine the potential environmental impacts of decommissioning.

“We want to understand what could happen to the North Sea ecosystem if oil rigs are decommissioned, or offshore wind farms are installed,” she said.

“We’ll start by looking at the distribution of creatures like mussels and barnacles, which thrive on hard substrates around rigs and other infrastructure, and integrate that with our knowledge of their life cycles,” she added.

Dr Porter explained the project will examine how infrastructure can also contribute to the spread of non-native species across the North Sea.

“If we create many more habitats in the North Sea through more infrastructure, how might this contribute to the spread of non-native species? If we remove some of the hardware, how will we affect the distribution of key species?” she said.

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Initially, the team will draw upon data from the INSITE project during the first stage of the research, then transition to deploy specialist kits around rigs and North Sea infrastructure to survey marine animal activity.

“This system will be adapted for placement in several locations in the northern North Sea, with deployment planned for March 2021,” said Dr Andrew Want, a marine ecologist at the ICIT.

The sampling system used by researchers will include a series of panels, made of different materials relevant to offshore industries. These will provide a surface upon which the larvae of marine animals can settle.

Set at specific depths, the panels can be retrieved regularly to collect samples for researchers to examine.

“This project will provide vital evidence which may be used to guide decision-making concerning decommissioning of oil and gas rigs or placement of additional renewable energy infrastructure in the North Sea,” Dr Want added.

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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