Study investigates using old rigs and turbines as underwater reefs

A North Sea oil rig - rigs will be among the structures look at in the study Picture: PIXABAY

A North Sea oil rig - rigs will be among the structures look at in the study Picture: PIXABAY - Credit: Archant

Major research is being carried out into the impact of man-made structures in the North Sea – and what to do with them once they are decommissioned.

Marine biologist Dr Natalie Hicks of the University of Essex Picture: UNIVERSITY OF ESSEX

Marine biologist Dr Natalie Hicks of the University of Essex Picture: UNIVERSITY OF ESSEX - Credit: Archant

Seven research projects are sharing a £5m funding post to assess the impact of the structures, which include more than 1,300 energy-related ones, such as oil rigs and gas platforms, wind turbines and underground cables.

Hundreds of oil drilling platforms in the North Sea are due to be decommissioned over the next three decades as they approach the end of their operational lifetime.

Current European Union (EU) decommissioning regulations ban leaving redundant installations in place – which means they must be completely removed when no longer in production.

But other parts of the world have adopted a “rigs to reef” programme where decommissioned rigs are converted into permanent underwater reefs.

One of the research projects is being undertaken by marine scientists at the University of Essex and is led by marine biologist Dr Natalie Hicks from the School of Life Sciences.

It is one of seven INSITE (Influence of Structures In The Ecosystem) projects to share £5m of funding over the next three years from the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC), supported by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture (CEFAS) in Lowestoft.

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The research will look at the role that man-made structures play in marine ecosystems.

Working with colleagues at the University of St Andrews, CEFAS and the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), the Essex team will focus on the impact the man-made structures currently have on the seabed and the disturbance and wider impact if they are removed.

“The effect these structures have on marine ecosystems is largely unknown, and could be positive, negative, or a combination of both,” said Dr Hicks. “As we start to consider how best to decommission these structures, it is important to understand the impact these structures have on the seabed.”

The North Sea is covered by sandy and muddy sediments, which store a significant proportion of carbon. The sediments also provide a habitat for many species, such as commercial fish. Despite being alien to the marine environments where they are based, the man-made structures actually provide unofficial ‘Marine Protected Areas’ (MPA) as they protect the seabed around them from other physical disturbances, such as trawling and dredging.