Decommissioning of offshore infrastructure has become a major issue facing the global offshore energy industry. In the North Sea alone, the decommissioning liability is estimated at £40 billion by 2040. Current international policy requires removal of offshore infrastructure when their production life ends; however, this policy is being questioned as emerging data reveal the importance of these structures to fish and invertebrate populations. Indeed, some governments are developing ‘rigs-to-reef’ (RTR) policies in situations where offshore infrastructure is demonstrated to have important environmental benefits. Using Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs), this study quantified and analysed fish and invertebrate assemblage dynamics associated with an oil and gas (O&G) complex in the Dogger Bank Special Area of Conservation (SAC), in the North Sea, Germany. We found clear depth zonation of organisms: infralittoral communities (0–15 m), circalittoral assemblages (15–45 m) and epi-benthic communities (45–50 m), which implies that ‘topping’ or ‘toppling’ decommissioning strategies could eliminate communities that are unique to the upper zones. Sessile invertebrate assemblages were significantly different between structures, which appeared to be driven by both biotic and abiotic mechanisms. The O&G complex accommodated diverse and abundant motile invertebrate and fish assemblages within which the whelk Buccinium undatum, cod fish Gadus morhua and lumpsucker fish Cyclopterus lumpus used the infrastructure for different stages of reproduction. This observation of breeding implies that the structures may be producing more fish and invertebrates, as opposed to simply acting as sites of attraction (sensu the ‘attraction vs production’ debate). At present, there are no records of C. lumpus spawning at such depth and distance from the coast, and this is the first published evidence of this species using an offshore structure as a spawning site. Overall, this study provides important new insight into the role of offshore O&G structures as habitat for fish and invertebrates in the North Sea, thereby helping to inform decommissioning decisions.

error: Content is protected !!