EcoSTAR: Ecosystem level importance of STructures as Artificial Reefs

The North Sea is one of the most industrialised marine environments on the planet, with thousands of man-made structures (MMS) including oil and gas platforms, pipelines, subsea cable routes, and marine renewable energy installations. Much of the infrastructure relating to the oil and gas industry has been in place for decades and is coming to the end of its economic life. In contrast, the marine renewable energy industry is expanding with many windfarms planned for construction in the near future. Current legislation requires that MMS in the North Sea should be removed from the marine environment after their operational lifespan is complete. With the decline of the oil and gas sector, the UK decommissioning operation will cost around £50 billion, with almost half of the financial burden falling on the taxpayer. These forthcoming changes in the North Sea landscape may have a significant impact on marine life. There is mounting evidence that the effects of MMS on the local marine environment are complex, and depend on the age, type, and operational status of the MMS. Once installed, MMS can host artificial reefs supporting diverse communities of marine life. Further, the exclusion of shipping and fishing in the vicinity of many MMS may provide refuges for fish and predators such as sharks, seals or porpoises (de facto Marine Protected Areas). However, the true extent of the effects of MMS on the ecosystem are unclear. To ensure effective decision-making about removal and installation of such structures in the future, there is an urgent need to better understand the impact of MMS on the North Sea ecosystem.

EcoSTAR (Ecosystem-level importance of STructures as Artificial Reefs) is a collaborative project combining the expertise of marine ecologists from the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas). EcoSTAR aims to fill in the key knowledge gaps on the impact of MMS across the entire marine ecosystem. This ecosystem-wide approach is critical to fully understand the breadth of possible interactions between MMS and marine species. To achieve this, EcoSTAR will measure impacts of MMS from the bottom of the food chain (the benthic community) all the way to the top (marine mammals).

EcoSTAR will

1) improve our understanding of the importance of MMS as habitat for benthic communities such as mussels, anemones and starfish;

2) measure how MMS influence the distribution and movement patterns of marine mammals in the North Sea;

3) determine how many seals and porpoises forage at MMS, and how often, and estimate the associated benefits or costs of MMS to individual animals;

4) estimate the consumption of fish by seals and porpoises feeding around MMS.

Critically, the knowledge gained from this project will be combined with existing data and knowledge of fish, food webs and fisheries, to predict the impacts of MMS on the whole ecosystem using cutting-edge ecosystem models. This will allow the prediction of the impacts of removing old structures (such as oil and gas platforms) and installing new structures (including wind turbines) on the marine ecosystem and on commercial fisheries The findings of EcoSTAR will facilitate the development of environmentally sustainable management strategies for the North Sea as whole, and specifically with regard the addition and removal of MMS.

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