A new approach for understanding the role of human-made structures in the North Sea

Hannah Tidbury and colleagues at the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science recently used social network analysis to aid marine spatial planning. Here Hannah explains a little more about the approach behind their work and what it means for oil and gas infrastructure.

Connectivity between communities of organisms that live within marine environment is important because isolated communities are more vulnerable to extinction. Therefore, to protect and conserve the marine environment, we need to understand how communities are connected and how changes to the marine environment might impact this connectivity.

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A visual summary of Tidbury et al.’s research article, Social network analysis as a tool for marine spatial planning: Impacts of decommissioning on connectivity in the North Sea

There are many man-made structures in the North Sea, including oil and gas platforms, shipwrecks and, with increasing focus on renewable energy, many wind turbines. Structures like these create hard surfaces in new locations, which marine organisms may attach to or congregate around. This can result in the formation of communities which would otherwise be absent.  This leaves us in a position where we don’t understand the connectivity between these and other marine communities, and the impact of adding or removing man-made structures.

In our recent study,  we examine how social network analysis, typically used to investigate people’s social relationships and connections, can be used to understand how marine communities are connected and help make decisions about the marine environment. The study shows: first, that artificial hard substrate plays an important role in connecting communities of marine organisms; second, that removal of oil and gas infrastructure may reduce this connectivity, and, third that social network analysis is a useful tool for marine spatial planning.

It is vital that we understand how changes we make to the marine environment impact the organisms that live there. At a time when oil and gas infrastructure is due for decommissioning and new wind turbine installations are planned, understanding the role of such man-made structures in connecting communities, is increasingly important. A potential loss of connectivity following decommissioning found in this study highlights the importance of man-made structures for marine connectivity and the need to carefully consider how best to manage changes to the marine environment to best protect it.

Read the open access article, Social network analysis as a tool for marine spatial planning: Impacts of decommissioning on connectivity in the North Sea, in Journal of Applied Ecology.

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