Science

Oil and gas rigs could help at-risk corals thrive, study says

Researchers said that understanding how the North Sea has responded to man-made structures should inform decisions about decommissioning them.

Man-made structures such as oil rigs and shipwrecks could help threatened corals to spread, a new study suggests.

Researchers found artificial structures from the oil and gas industry support a network of densely connected coral ecosystems that spans hundreds of miles and crosses international borders.

While the spread of the so-called “ocean sprawl” of man-made structures can have a negative impact on marine ecosystems through issues such as sound, pollution and invasive species, the study suggests they could also help conservation efforts.

A team led by scientists at the University of Edinburgh used a computer model to reveal how a protected species of coral might use industrial structures to spread.

They found that coral larvae released near oil platforms would travel between corals that have colonised other structures and reach natural populations located at great distances.

This would enable larvae, from the Lophelia pertusa species, to supplement existing populations and recolonise damaged reefs and protected areas in other countries, improving their chances of survival.

Professor Murray Roberts, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, said: “When we first spotted these corals growing on the legs of oil platforms in the late 1990s it was a real surprise, as we expected this to be a very unsuitable environment for them.

“We now have strong evidence that they’re likely to be dispersing right across the North Sea and into marine protected areas.”

Researchers said understanding how the North Sea has responded to man-made structures that have been in place since the 1970s is key to informing decisions about decommissioning.

Dr Lea-Anne Henry, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, who led the study, said: “We need to think very carefully about the best strategies to remove these platforms, bearing in mind the key role they may now play in the North Sea ecosystem.”

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, involved researchers from the National Oceanography Centre, the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research, Heriot-Watt University and BMT Cordah, industry specialists in marine growth surveys.

It was supported by the ANChor project funded by the INSITE programme, and the ATLAS project funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme.

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