Ecological role of offshore artificial structures

Dr Andrew Gates, Dr Daniel Jones, Dr Jon Copley, Dr Christina Evans, Subsea7

Energy production in the global oceans through renewables and hydrocarbons is critical for human society and continues to expand. Complex structures are routinely installed in the marine environment including pipelines, cables and other infrastructure. These structures are eventually removed (decommissioning), something that is particularly prevalent at present for offshore oil and gas industry infrastructure.


Offshore infrastructure alters ecological structure and functioning through habitat provision, increased biomass and enhanced connectivity, and supports species of conservation importance. Assemblages supported by artificial structures vary over a range of spatial scales from regional (e.g. between ocean basins) to fine scales (e.g. location on the structure) and on temporal scales related to the age of the structure and stage of succession.


There is increasing policy debate about best practice for permitting structure installation and removal, with major differences in approach across the world. There is urgent need for scientific evidence on the role of artificial structures to support this. This project will advance our understanding of how fauna associated with offshore structures changes over different spatial scales (e.g. ocean basins or depth gradients) and over time, through repeat observations. It will focus on subsea pipelines, which are common structures that cover broad spatial scales in open ocean.



Offshore industries collect vast quantities of marine images for a range of purposes, some of which have high potential to generate ecological data, including the emerging Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) Essential Ocean Variable (EOV) ‘invertebrate abundance and distribution’.  This project has access to an archive of high-quality seafloor imaging surveys of offshore pipelines, collected by remotely operated vehicles operated by a major offshore industry service provider and CASE project partner (Subsea7).


Biological and other environmental information will be annotated in images using standard software. The resulting data will allow for the assessment of spatial and temporal patterns in benthic megafaunal assemblages in areas with and without a range of anthropogenic structures. Biological change will be interpreted from time-series investigations. Changes will be assessed using a variety of statistical approaches and interpreted using ecological theory. Patterns in standing stock, size, biomass, biodiversity, and community structure will be the primary focus of the project.



The INSPIRE DTP programme provides comprehensive personal and professional development training alongside extensive opportunities for students to expand their multi-disciplinary outlook through interactions with a wide network of academic, research and industrial/policy partners. The student will be registered at the University of Southampton and hosted at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton.

The student will receive training in the analysis of photographic and sample data and subsequent interpretation. This will include processing and identification of megafaunal data from both images and specimens, data processing and analysis using a range of appropriate statistical techniques. The student will also receive training in using the R programming language for statistical analysis and data processing and ArcGIS software. The student will gain experience of industry through working closely with the CASE partner. There will be opportunities to present scientific findings at a range of relevant scientific and policy forums.


Eligibility & Funding Details: 

Please see for details.


Background Reading: 

Fowler, A.M., et al. 2018. Environmental benefits of leaving offshore infrastructure in the ocean. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 16 (10), 571-578.

Gates, A.R., Horton, T., Serpell-Stevens, A., Chandler, C., Grange, L.J., Robert, K., Bevan, A., Jones, D.O.B., 2019. Ecological Role of an Offshore Industry Artificial Structure. Frontiers in Marine Science 6.

Rouse, S., Lacey, N.C., Hayes, P., Wilding, T.A., 2019. Benthic Conservation Features and Species Associated With Subsea Pipelines: Considerations for Decommissioning. Frontiers in Marine Science 6 (200).