Illustration; Source: Equinor Heriot-Watt

Offshore rigs could be ‘stepping stones’ for non-native species

Scientists from around the UK, led by the Heriot-Watt’s International Centre for Island Technology, are investigating marine life connected to the rigs, pipelines and other infrastructure in the North Sea.

Illustration; Source: Equinor

The base and legs of oil and gas platforms, subsea pipelines, and offshore wind farms have become home to different species over the years, like mussels, barnacles, amphipods, and anemones.

Jo Porter, project lead and marine scientist at Heriot-Watt’s ICIT, said: “We want to understand what could happen to the North Sea ecosystem if oil rigs are decommissioned, or offshore wind farms are installed.

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.

When there are habitats close together, they can act as a stepping stone for non-native species to set up shop and thrive. 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?

The team will use data from the INSITE project for the first part of the research, and then deploy specialist kit to areas around rigs and infrastructure in the northern North Sea to start surveying the marine animals.

Andrew Want, a marine ecologist at the ICIT, said: “We have designed a sampling system specifically for long-term survival in harsh marine environments.

This system will be adapted for placement in several locations in the northern North Sea with deployment planned for March 2021. We will choose the locations based on environmental conditions like currents, water depth and seabed type.

We’re coming to the end of the fossil fuel lifespan and about to use the North Sea for a different type of energy.

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”.

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

Partners include Hull University, National Oceanographic Centre, the Natural History Museum and Aberdeen University, the European Marine Energy Centre, Aquatera, Marine Scotland Science, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, and the International Maritime Organisation.